It was a building project in more ways than one.

As a construction manager, Keith Jacks was with his former employer, CDI Contractors, when the company was building the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute on the UAMS campus in 2008. Jacks’ work put him in regular contact with the institute’s new director, notable oncologist Peter Emanuel, who had come from the National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Emanuel was already internationally known for his research in pediatric and adult forms of leukemia and his list of accolades at that time included making the “Best Doctors in America” list every year since 2001, as well as producing published works and being a sought-after speaker.

But for Jacks, it was all about one little detail he noticed in his first weekly meeting with Emanuel.

“We met every Tuesday and he comes in for the meeting and his badge just says ‘Peter,’” Jacks says.

The lack of pretension struck a chord, and a friendship was built along with the cancer institute.

In the years that followed, circumstances and fate would put Jacks’ father under Emanuel’s care, further cementing a bond that has led the two, along with Emanuel’s wife Carla, to their current support of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).

Jacks, now a vice president, partner and project executive at Kinco Constructors, is up for the local LLS chapter’s Man of the Year Award, an honor that is actually earned through a fundraising competition. There are 10 candidates this year.

Emanuel, now a hematology/oncology specialist at CHI St. Vincent, among his many other responsibilities, and Carla are long-time society supporters and co-chairs of the event, which for the second year is taking a virtual format because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’d like to have half a million dollars this year,” Peter Emanuel says of the fundraising goal, which is actually around $576,000.

“They had a meeting. That was their goal. All the 10 candidates,” Carla says. “It’s such an amazing team this year. I’m so proud of them.”

Society Setup

The LLS is a national organization made up of regional divisions — Arkansas is folded into the Red River Region with north Texas and Oklahoma and has offices in Little Rock and Springdale. Founded in 1949, the society is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and the largest such health organization fighting blood cancer in the world.

The LLS’ stated mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and myeloma and to improve the quality of life for patients and their families. The pillars of that mission are research, access and advocacy.

The strides being made in research, and the work that still needs to be done, obviously interest an oncologist like Emanuel.

“The past four years the FDA has approved 65 new drugs just for blood cancer,” he says. “It used to be two a year. … We felt the Lymphoma Society played a major role in 55 of those 65 drugs being approved.”

But, Jacks and Emanuel noted, only four blood cancer drugs have been created specifically for children, which cries out for further research funding.

Outside national research, the LLS puts its money into local advocacy, helping blood cancer patients in Arkansas with the costs of travel, copays and other patient aid. Some of the national money goes back into the states. According to Emanuel, the organization contributed around $1.25 million for Arkansas patients last year.

It’s a big sum, and sometimes it helps pay for the smallest things that make the most difference. Carla recalls a patient who was coming in to see Peter but didn’t have transportation.

“He had to get a ride there, and so immediately they reached out to LLS and got him hooked up with LLS for rides, housing and meals,” she says. “They wanted to make sure he was being taken care of while he was here for his treatment. You could immediately see what was tangible in what LLS was doing for that man.”

In 2020, the local LLS helped provide $17,400 in patient aid to 174 patients, $14,500 urgent need funds to 29 patients, $967,375 in copay assistance for 332 patients, $137,000 in travel assistance to 274 patients and $47,000 in COVID-19 pandemic funding to 188 patients.

The money, Jacks says, is often used simply to provide “someone to help you get through the system and get over the initial shock of finding out you’ve got cancer. … or you have issues with insurance. It gets very frustrating, even for me.”

The Friends Factor

Jacks knows firsthand what a cancer scare looks like.

In early April of 2020, just as the pandemic was breaking out, his father Billy Harvey was found to have three large masses in his abdominal cavity, pressing against his aorta and affecting the performance of his pacemaker.

It was the same day Pine Bluff’s Jefferson Regional Medical Center, where Harvey had his CT scan, closed to visitors. Jacks can recall talking to his father, frightened and alone at 91, by phone from the parking lot, trying to ease his mind.

Enter Emanuel. Within 24 hours Harvey was at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary, where a biopsy revealed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

By now, Jacks and Emanuel were long-time friends and hunting partners. In breaking the news about Harvey’s lymphoma, Emanuel said the disease was treatable and added, “This is not going to be what kills you.”

Jacks said it was typical of Emanuel’s soothing bedside manner.

In the ensuing four weeks, Harvey underwent a series of mono-regimen, non-chemotherapy antibody infusions, along with some other referrals. By December the masses had reduced by a third, and by January they had reduced by one-half.

“We are taught in medical school to not treat those who are close to us out of the potential of losing objectivity,” Emanuel says. “When it comes to cancer, I do not think there is a way to maintain complete objectivity. So while I obviously do not take care of my family members, it is a privilege to care for Keith's father.”

Jacks says his dad is “feeling better than he has in years,” but also notes the family was fortunate to have so many close associations within the health care industry. Jacks’ work has been primarily in health care construction, he is a member of the American Society for Health Care Engineering and is the only contractor in the state who is a certified health care facility manager.

“Most of my [health care] specialists are friends,” says Jacks, who also has a niece and two cousins in the industry.

Paying It Back

Inspired to participate because of his dad after years of more traditional, hands-off philanthropy, Jacks is looking at a Man of the Year goal of $251,000 and is anticipating firing up a formidable network of friends, associates and even one of man’s best friends.

“I don’t have a huge ego, but I said ‘If I’m going to do this I might as well win,’” he says.

Jacks has 18 colleagues, friends and business contacts standing by, including one of his black labs, Straight, who is soliciting donations on his own Facebook page.

“My dog is raising money for his human,” Jacks says.

The Man and Woman of the Year will be honored at the May 16 Grand Finale for their 10 weeks of philanthropic competition. The candidates usually have some connection to a blood cancer patient, casualty or a caregiver who is providing treatment. LLS also chooses young patients for the non-competitive, Boy and Girl of the Year honors.

“We like to highlight our patients because they’re our heroes,” Carla says.

Jacks notes that, without friendship, his cancer fighting experience could be much different. It was his friend Emanuel who treated his father, Jacks himself has been a friend to cancer fighting institutions, and now, fair warning, his friends better expect to be tapped for the Man of the Year competition.

“I haven’t turned them down. Soft touch," he says. "So it’s payback time.”

Did You Know?

Every 3 minutes someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer.

• Leukemia is the No. 1 most diagnosed form of childhood cancer.

• Approximately 80% of childhood cancer survivors develop a chronic health condition from treatment.

• The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society funded more than 60% of blood cancer therapies being used to treat other cancers.

Man & Woman of the Year Grand Finale
Sunday, May 16, 6 p.m.