Rob Headrick ’82 Gains White House Attention

Referencing a three-minute TED Talk on “How to Start a Movement,” Dr. Rob Headrick ’82 said he subscribes to the idea that a person has to be willing to be a lone nut before his/her idea attracts followers and becomes a movement.

Headrick, who serves as Chief of Thoracic Surgery at CHI Memorial, said his “lone nut” moment was in 2015 when he and his team began designing and building a lung screening mobile program that was based on a built-from-scratch bus with a portable CT scanner that could quickly detect cancer in otherwise healthy people.  It became known as the "Breathe Easy," and now serves 11 counties in Tennessee, eight counties in North Georgia, and two counties in Northeast Alabama. “In this part of the country, one person dies every two hours of lung cancer,” said Headrick, adding that the deaths are often preventable with early screenings.  “Our population is unique and vulnerable, and we have a great opportunity to reverse a disease.”  

With the help of private donors, Headrick and his team have taken their original prototype and have perfected their second bus. They have spent the last three years developing financial analyses and building the concept to make it sustainable.  His efforts gained significant traction when officials with the GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer took notice. This led to the attention of the White House.   In May, the movement was in motion when he was invited to Washington, D.C. to be part of President and First Lady Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative. 

According to a White House release, Headrick was among leaders from the patient and caregiver community, private foundations, non-profits, companies, and health care providers who were invited to the White House. The goal was to identify impactful steps to improve cancer screening and enhance prevention; address inequities and target effective treatments; develop approaches for deadly and rare cancers, including childhood cancers; support patients, survivors, and caregivers and learn more from people living with cancer.  “I was honored to be at the first press briefing and to be talking to the highest level of government about what Chattanooga is doing,” said Headrick. “The Cancer Moonshot is a lofty goal, but it is bringing passionate individuals together. So this enables us to be working from the same page in a synchronized manner.”

The American Cancer Society has confirmed that more people in the U.S. die of lung cancer than breast, colon, and prostate cancer combined. This is the reason First Lady Jill Biden is planning to visit Chattanooga in the coming weeks to see the Breathe Easy unit firsthand. “Scaling up and reproducing our mobile program access across the country is our next challenge,” said Headrick. “Despite the improvement in therapies and effectiveness of our systemic drugs, the five-year survival rate has not changed in 40 years. However, each lung screening bus could reach 3,000 at-risk people each year, that means each bus will reach 30,000 people over ten years. And that is a movement we can all support!


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