The same week that Benjamin “Ben” Orr received his acceptance letter to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Medicine in June 2005, he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of colon cancer. As he began to realize that he was losing his heroic battle with the disease, Ben—just 26 years old at the time of diagnosis—expressed regret that he hadn’t yet made his mark on the world, recall his parents, Bill and Betsy Orr.
Ever since Ben succumbed to the disease in June 2006 at age 27, the Orrs have been determined to keep his legacy alive by making a difference for others in his honor. “Benjamin was a kind, intelligent, caring young man who had a heart of gold,” says Betsy, a former elementary school teacher. “Even though he was always hopeful and fought very hard to conquer the disease, he repeatedly told us he regretted not having a chance to make his mark. Our family felt compelled to not let his short life fade into the background. We always want him to be acknowledged.”
The Orrs have honored Ben through a number of philanthropic efforts, using the funds earmarked for his medical education to serve others. During the fundraising campaign for the new Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, they donated a leadership gift to name a family waiting room in his honor.
The Orr family spent hours together in the waiting area at the previous downtown Martha Jefferson location as Ben received care during the last year of his life. They recall the old space as “institutional,” with cinderblock walls, tucked away behind an elevator. As the new hospital was being built, the Orrs wanted to contribute to the creation of a comfortable, welcoming space where families could gather during times of illness, tragedy or joy.
“It’s a scary time when you’re waiting in the hospital for news about your loved one,” says Bill, a urologist affiliated with Martha Jefferson for 30 years. “We wanted families to have a private space where they could feel comfortable expressing their emotions, comforting one another and making important decisions.”
The Orr family’s ties to Sentara Martha Jefferson span decades, beginning in 1971 when Bill joined Urological Associates in Charlottesville. He and Betsy met at the hospital in 1974 when she needed treatment for a kidney stone. Bill happened to be the doctor on call and was the one who performed her surgery. They started dating shortly after her recovery, and were married in 1976. Their three children—Ben and his sisters Allison and Catherine—were born at the hospital. Bill retired in 2001. Over the years, the Orrs also have supported two capital campaigns, as well as nursing and palliative care at the hospital.
“Our relationship with Sentara Martha Jefferson goes very deep, beginning with Bill’s practice there,” Betsy says. “Our affection and endearment for the hospital grew upon the diagnosis, treatment and death of our son. They were very good to Benjamin during his illness.”
“Sentara Martha Jefferson’s Caring Tradition has carried through from the old hospital to the new one, and it’s still there,” Bill says. “We appreciated the care Ben received from his oncologist, Dr. Gordon Morris, as well as the nurses and other providers there. Supporting Sentara Martha Jefferson—and other organizations—in his memory is a way that we feel we carry on with his spirit. It gives us a positive reflection on his life.”
Ben’s parents remember him as a caring person with many friends and a “champion for the underdog.” A standout on his high school track and cross-country teams, Ben enjoyed skiing, mountain biking and helping his father on the family’s 100 acres of farmland. A graduate of James Madison University, Ben worked for three years in the field of environmental science before deciding to go to medical school. Being accepted at the VCU School of Medicine was one of his proudest accomplishments, and he was set to enroll in August 2005—two months after being diagnosed with cancer.
The Orrs established the Ben Orr Memorial Scholarship at the VCU School of Medicine, to be awarded to an incoming student who has beaten great odds to attend medical school. They recently met the scholarship fund’s third recipient, whose choice of oncology as his medical specialty was influenced by Ben’s life and the scholarship. Two previous scholarship recipients have graduated and begun their medical careers.
“In my mind, every time one of these students graduates and moves into the medical field, Benjamin gets to be a doctor all over again,” Betsy says.
Each April, the Orrs host the annual Ben Orr Walk to celebrate his birthday with their daughters, sons-in-law and three grandchildren—along with many of Ben’s friends and their growing families. After the walk, everyone gathers at the Orr home, where Betsy serves Ben’s favorite foods. The event keeps his memory alive for those who knew him, as well as for his nephew and two nieces, who never had the chance to meet Ben.
“We want to prove to Benjamin that he did make his mark, and that his mark was a worthy one,” Betsy says. “It’s not about money or about accumulating ‘points.’ It’s about how can you take a devastating, life-changing event and make something positive from it. If Benjamin were still alive, he would be contributing somewhere with his time, with his passion and with his dollars. Sentara Martha Jefferson is a very poignant and special place in which to commemorate him. This is where he was cared for at the end of his life, and we want other people to be able to go to Sentara Martha Jefferson and receive the same care.”
Commemorative and Naming Opportunities
Memorials at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital are meaningful ways of honoring the people we love and/or those to whom we are grateful, whether they are living or deceased. These memorials often are made for a special intention or in thanks for the care received at Sentara Martha Jefferson.
Commemorative and naming opportunities evidence a lasting legacy while making a difference for patients, families and caregivers through a philanthropic investment in our community’s healthcare future.
For information on available commemorative and naming opportunities at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, interested individuals are encouraged to contact the Martha Jefferson Hospital Foundation by calling 434-654-8258 to speak with a member of the special gifts staff.
Email inquiries may be sent to:
Ray Mishler, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cathy Sedwick, email@example.com