By Debby Vander Woude

The Sanford Lorraine Cross Award speaks to all of us in different ways.

For some, it means hope for long-awaited treatments and cures; for others, it’s a recognition that bold, outside-of-the-box thinking should be rewarded, not restrained. Others simply believe that great scientific innovators deserve to be celebrated as the heroes they are.

I invested in the Award for all of those reasons, as well as one very important additional one: to honor the life and legacy of my late husband, Dr. John C. Vander Woude.

My donation — made together with our three children, Sarah, Daniel and Matthew — captures John’s passion for medicine and conviction that research is the pathway to finding cures. John would have loved the vision and purpose of this Award.

Importantly to us, it also celebrates the power of the human spirit. It specifically seeks men and women who have persevered beyond expectations, broken barriers and shown tireless devotion to the well-being of others.

John fell into that category.

A highly skilled cardiothoracic surgeon, John never stopped learning, researching and working to perfect his trade. He was widely regarded for his expertise, but it was his gentleness and empathy, shaped by his own health battle, that earned the trust and love of his patients and colleagues.

At just 32, John received his first diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was only six months into a highly competitive cardiovascular surgery fellowship at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston.

Somehow, he endured three months of radiation, 12 courses of chemotherapy and three hospitalizations, all while completing his fellowship on time — and continuing to be a rock for me and our babies at home. His strength earned him the name “Iron John” among his peers.

At the end of it all, John was cancer-free, but doctors warned of a probable recurrence. That news led us back north to the supportive network of our families in Sioux Falls, S.D.; a move that shaped the course of our lives and John’s career.

In South Dakota, John would help pioneer the Sanford Heart program and hospital and lay the framework for Sanford’s pediatric cardiovascular surgical program. Time and again, his vision and humble, but determined, nature helped bring people together for a greater good.

Cancer would take John’s life in 2012, but not before he made an indelible mark on his profession and the delivery of care in South Dakota and beyond.

He was an extraordinary man, and I can hardly think of a more fitting way to honor him than through the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award.

From today forward, our family will always be connected to this transformational prize and to Sanford Health, where John’s legacy lives on. It will bring our children and grandchildren together to remember John and to help celebrate incredible breakthroughs that I can only imagine.

To honor John’s amazing life, we will do everything we can to reward the bold innovators of today and empower the leaders of the future. Because to hope for lifesaving treatments and cures is not enough.