Cullen Family Runs for Heart Health and Research
On a brisk but relatively seasonal day in February 2017, hundreds of people gather a few miles northwest of the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) to honor the life of a former Milwaukee alderman and to raise money for the MCW Cardiovascular Center (CVC). But they're not at a traditional fundraising venue – inside a ballroom and safe from the harsh Wisconsin winter temperatures. Rather, they're outside in scenic Underwood Park, ready to participate in the annual Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Club Run/Walk.
"Steve was a runner, so there are things about our event that have to be a certain way," says Gael Cullen, Steve's widow. "We must offer the long-sleeve running shirt, and we have to offer a longer length, so in addition to the two-mile fun run/walk, there is an 8K, which is almost five miles – a minimum distance for Steve. And the course we run is one that he ran countless times."
Before his death due to heart disease in 1995, Steve Cullen was an avid runner. To honor his memory, his wife, Gael Cullen, and her family established the annual Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Club Run/Walk, with proceeds going to cardiovascular research at MCW.
Now in its 21st year, the Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Club Run/Walk has raised more than $400,000 for heart disease research and awareness, including more than $380,000 donated to the CVC since MCW began partnering with the Cullen family for the event in 2004.
The concept for the run began January 5, 1996, on what would have been Steve's 41st birthday. Just months prior, and only three days after finishing a marathon, Steve left Milwaukee on a business trip and never came home. He died in his hotel room of a sudden cardiac arrhythmia. While he had a family history of heart disease – his father died of a heart attack at age 41 – Steve's cardiac arrest wasn’t due to any artery blockage, but rather a malfunction of his heart's electrical system.
"His death was totally out of the blue," Gael says.
So in memory of Steve on his birthday, Gael, their four young daughters, family and friends gathered that day to take a run around the neighborhood. That could have been the beginning and end of it, but instead, Steve's younger brother, David, had an idea.
"After we got done, David said to me, "We should try to do this again next year, invite some friends and see if we can raise some money,'" Gael recalls. "So we did, and that first year, I was flabbergasted when 167 people showed up in the cold of winter in Milwaukee to run in Steve's honor."
Scenes from the 1997 event
The Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Club Run/Walk has grown in size since 1997. Now, the event averages about 700 registrants year after year.
"I've been doing the run for 21 years now, and you think my awe of our participants would wear off, but it never does," Gael remarks. (pictured right)
"I'm just so impressed that so many people come out and support this cause because it means so much not only to my family but to virtually every other family on the planet. Heart disease is so rampant that it affects everybody to some degree or another."
Unfortunately for the Cullen family, the tragic impact of heart disease didn't end with Steve. His two older brothers also died after suffering heart attacks, one at the age of 51 and the other at 53.
"I have four daughters and two grandsons who have a family history of heart disease," Gael notes. "So the idea of supporting research that can look into cardiac-related disease is very important."
And they've been successful so far, according to Ivor J. Benjamin MD, MCW professor of medicine and director of the CVC. "Gael Cullen and her family have been tremendous partners with the CVC," he says. "They are truly the epitome of turning a tragic situation – losing Steve Cullen to premature heart disease – into surrounding themselves with friends and family to help fund research to advance promising new treatments for others who suffer from cardiovascular disease."
With the help of MCW, Gael and her family have been able to direct the funds raised through the Cullen Run/Walk. The money has supported research projects to identify genetic risk factors of heart disease, helped underwrite a medical history project to provide insights into cardiovascular risk factors and backed stem cell research with promising impact on heart disease treatment.
While all the research has been fascinating to Gael, some studies have more significance to her personally. "I particularly have a soft spot for projects that are looking at genetic research into heart disease, because obviously there is something in my husband's genes to make it such a huge issue for his family," she says.
By 2015, the event had grown sufficiently to establish an annual $25,000 award for the Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Scholar – an MCW junior or mid-career scientist involved in cardiovascular research.
The first recipient was Aron Geurts, PhD, associate professor of physiology, whose lab pioneers and applies cutting-edge genetic engineering technologies in stem cells and whole animals to model human cardiovascular diseases.
"A year after receiving the award, Dr. Geurts gave our committee a tour of his lab and talked about all the work he had done with the Cullen grant," Gael says. "That was so nice for the committee, which plans and spends so much time organizing this event, to actually see the person who got the big award and have him explain what he used it for and show the little beating heart cells in a Petri dish. It was very cool."
"I was honored to be the inaugural recipient of the award," Dr. Geurts remarks. "And I am quite pleased with the results of the funding. A postdoctoral fellow in my lab used the award to develop a novel strategy to accelerate the production of disease models using human stem cells, an advancement which we have since been able to leverage into other exciting opportunities."
In 2016, the family bestowed the second Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Scholar award on Peter C. Frommelt, MD, professor of pediatrics (cardiology), and began a three-year commitment to support the Cullen Summer Research Fellowship for Medical Students.
"We're encouraging up-and-coming researchers who might find the next genetic marker of cardiovascular disease or who might find a cure for some aspect of heart disease," Gael says. "We certainly want to help current research, but it’s always important to also support those who hopefully will be our future."
Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Scholar Award Recipients
Aron Geurts, PhD (2015)
Peter C. Frommelt, MD (2016)
Andrew S. Greene, PhD (2017)
Even though the Cullen Run/Walk has grown so much over the years, it still remains a Cullen family affair. Gael and Steve's four daughters are all actively involved (including three serving as committee members), as are Steve's surviving siblings, David, Cindy Barton and Dorothy Logemann. They've also gained an MCW family.
"MCW’s active involvement at the run has been getting bigger year after year," Gael says, "and I only hope that will continue."
"The Cullen family has become one of the CVC's family members," Dr. Benjamin shares, "and with their continued support, we will continue our innovative research to improve cardiovascular health and reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease in southeast Wisconsin and beyond."
As the funds from this past February's run are disseminated, including $25,000 to the most recent Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Scholar, Andrew S. Greene, PhD, interim vice chair, chief and professor in the department of biomedical engineering, Gael Cullen can't help but reflect on another successful year.
"It's very gratifying to see so many people come out and support their own heart health by participating but also support the cause in the donations they raise and the dollar amount they give in the registration," she says. "This is a winter run, so we have people come out in temperatures that for a few years have been below zero with the wind chill. We’ve had some snow; we’ve had rain.
To have people come out year after year after year to support this, it's – purposefully to include a pun – very, very heartwarming."
– Karri Stock
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