Disabled UW grad’s fund-raiser to boost research

A Spinal Cord Injury Paralyzed Him And Now Motivates Him To Give To UW’s Waisman Center.

By Karen Rivedal for the Wisconsin State Journal

As anyone who’s ever earned a college degree knows, it’s not unusual for universities to ask their students for money long after the last tuition payment has been made.

They call them “gifts,” rather than bills, after you graduate.

But few would have expected such a gift from David Busta, a 1997 graduate of UW-Madison who grew up in Chetek, a small city in Barron County about 225 miles northwest of Madison. Student fund raiser visits the Waisman Ceneter

Busta, now 30, double-majored in journalism and communication arts, with an emphasis in advertising. He got a job immediately after graduation, working in Milwaukee as a media buyer and account executive for two ad agencies.

Milwaukee also is where his life, for a time, screeched to a halt. He was leaving a concert at the Marcus Amphitheater one night in August 2002 when he fell 30 feet over a railing and broke his neck, severing part of his spinal cord.

He’s been paralyzed since, with no feeling in his arms or legs. Busta spent five months in a Milwaukee hospital and almost two years in a rehab center in Minnesota, moving just last month into his own apartment in downtown Minneapolis, where he has a live-in caretaker to help him.

But now it’s UW-Madison he wants to help. Together with his friends from high school and his parents, Dave and Carol Busta, who still live in Chetek, Busta has pledged the proceeds of a planned fund-raiser to UW-Madison’s Waisman Center, a $40 million research facility dedicated to finding better treatments and cures for people with developmental disabilities and spinal cord injuries.

Busta said he hopes to raise $25,000 with the combination basketball tournament/silent auction on Nov. 27 in Chetek. He plans to keep none of the money for himself, just like the first fund-raiser he and his friends and family sponsored last year when they raised $16,000 for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation using the same format.

“I didn’t think it was really necessary for me to benefit from it directly, although I hope to benefit from (the research) one day,” Busta said, just before taking a recent tour of the Waisman Center. “It’s also because of my commitment to the university and because of my being a graduate from there.”

Derek Johnson, a high school friend, said the planned gift is both a practical use of the money and a symbolic gesture of hope.

“Our 25-grand pales in comparison to the center’s budget, but at the same time we feel like we’re doing our part,” said Johnson, who lives in Waunakee. “We’re trying to make a statement and keep things a little more local now.”

Waisman Center director Marsha Mailick Seltzer said the center was honored to be the fund-raiser’s beneficiary and she commended Busta for his “tremendous altruism.”

She also promised the donation, whatever its size, would not go to waste. Many scientists use small gifts as seed money, Seltzer said, to produce the preliminary results from small-scale studies that federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health like to see before handing out bigger grants.

Such gifts also provide an intangible benefit to the giver and recipient alike.

“It’s very important in both directions,” Seltzer said. “It’s very inspiring to the researchers. And (Busta) is investing in the future, and not just his own future.”

Busta and his supporters have created an account in his name at the UW Foundation, which is UW-Madison’s nonprofit fund-raising arm. Money from the benefit will be placed in the account, then transferred by the foundation to the Waisman Center where it will help fund the work of researcher Su-Chun Zhang.

A UW-Madison professor of anatomy and neurology, Zhang has had success coaxing human embryonic stem cells to become early-stage brain cells. The cells have been transplanted into mice, where they grew into healthy brain cells known as neurons.

With more study, scientists hope to create nerve cells that can be transplanted into people to repair the damage caused by spinal cord injuries and neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s.

“It’s very important for us to continue this work,” Zhang said.

Seltzer said Busta has not been promised any direct benefits from his donation — such as participation in any clinical trial, should the studies get that far — nor has he sought any. She said he understood it could be years before the research translates into any kind of treatment.

“There’s a moral obligation on our part to be as clear as possible with patients,” she said, noting the perils of giving false hope to people in need. “We want to give true hope,” she said.

More details on Busta’s personal history and the fund-raiser — including how to bid in the silent auction, which includes sports memorabilia signed by professional athletes — is available at www.bustabenefit.org.

About the Waisman Center:

* Opened in 1973, the center is named after Harry Waisman, a pioneer in mental retardation research. It is dedicated to research and programs to benefit people with developmental disabilities.

* It provides labs and research space for 50 faculty members from 26 academic departments. With another 300 staff members, it is the largest interdisciplinary research center in UW-Madison’s Graduate School.

* More than 250 graduate and post-graduate students receive training there each year.

* Center clinics and programs serve more than 2,500 people each year from around the world.

* Its $20 million annual budget comes from federal, state and private sources.

* Grants from the National Institutes of Health provide core support for 60 labs and research groups at the center.

* Work there includes molecular and genetic research, clinical services and early childhood development, and research on sensory and cognitive development, communication and social development.

* Center researchers are seeking better treatment and cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, fragile X syndrome, autism and spinal cord injuries.