For John Laughlin, the recipient of the 2021 Ragen Volunteer Service Award, supporting the University of Washington School of Medicine is a family legacy. The award, named after philanthropists Brooks and Susie Ragen, honors Laughlin’s years of service, including his work on the UW Medicine Heart Health Campaign Council.

Laughlin’s first introduction to UW Medicine’s Division of Cardiology came through legendary cardiologist Robert Bruce, MD. At first, Laughlin only knew Dr. Robert Bruce as his new stepfather, and as “Grandpa Bobby” to the grandkids.

“Bob was such a modest man. I had no idea who my mother had married,” says Laughlin.

Over time, though, the “father of exercise cardiology” would come into sharp focus for his stepson.

Early in their relationship, when Laughlin needed to see a cardiologist, he took Bruce along to his appointment. They sat in the small examining room, and the doctor introduced himself. At first, the doctor thought the older man was the patient. Bruce shook his head and sat quietly in the corner as the doctor explained the procedure that Laughlin needed.

After the successful procedure, Laughlin’s doctor stopped by. “I’m so embarrassed,” he said. “When we had our pre-surgery meeting, I didn’t recognize Dr. Bruce. That was like sitting next to the pope and not knowing him.”

A Pioneer in Cardiology

In 1949, Bruce joined the UW School of Medicine as its first chief of cardiology. By 1963, in collaboration with colleagues, he had pioneered what became known as the Bruce protocol, a cardiac stress test that allows doctors to evaluate patients while they exercise. Throughout his career, Bruce continued to advance the field of cardiology, spearheading groundbreaking studies and publishing hundreds of scientific articles.

In 2004, near the end of Bruce’s life, Dr. Richard Page, then the head of the Division of Cardiology, gathered around 50 people at his bedside to say farewell. Although Bruce could no longer speak, he wore a suit and listened to friends and family honoring him before he passed away later that evening.

“That was my introduction to the amazing talent in the division,” says Laughlin. Hearing, for the first time, their stories of the unassuming man whose lifetime of work had made such a difference touched Laughlin deeply — and sparked his interest in continuing that legacy.

legendary cardiologist Robert Bruce, MD
Robert A. Bruce, MD, known as the “Father of Exercise Cardiology,” developed the standardized treadmill test for diagnosing and evaluating heart and lung diseases, known as the “Bruce Protocol.”

Fulfilling a Need on a Global Scale

After Bruce’s passing, Laughlin and his late wife Cookie began their involvement with the division’s Cardiac Research Council, where they met and worked alongside Brooks and Susie Ragen.

In addition to Bruce, Laughlin had other ties to the University of Washington. He graduated from the UW College of Arts and Sciences in 1966, remaining connected to his alma mater as an avid Husky fan. The founder of a successful family business in the electrical industry, Laughlin brought his knowledge of sales and marketing to his volunteerism.

Their working group soon decided that UW Cardiology was possibly the best-kept secret in the region. “Our mission was to change that perception with friends and community leaders and explore possibilities for support,” Laughlin says. Years of activity and progress followed, including outreach and events, lunch-and-learn sessions, time spent with cardiology’s innovators, lab tours with prospective donors and more.

Laughlin has further honored Bruce’s memory with the John and Cookie Laughlin Endowed Professorship in Cardiology in 2012 and the John Laughlin Endowed Professorship in Cardiovascular Research in 2016. Around that time, Laughlin began chairing the Heart Health Campaign Council in support of UW Medicine’s Accelerate fundraising campaign, which concluded in 2020.

“In this way, Dr. Bruce’s legacy lives on and expands,” says UW Medicine CEO Paul Ramsey. “UW Cardiology is no longer the best-kept secret. Its global reach furthers our mission to improve the health of all people.”

Each spring, in more normal times, Laughlin and his family celebrate the Bruce-Laughlin Fellow in Cardiology with a dinner and attendance at Cardiovascular Grand Rounds, where the recipient fellow speaks. He has also supported the Cardiovascular Research Fund and the Dementia Physician Training Fund, led by Dr. Barak Gaster.

“Giving is such a personal thing and can be done in so many ways, not all with money,” says Laughlin. “For me, the real joy over the past 15 years is working alongside such wonderful, brilliant and talented people — like the doctors who have shared their work and become family friends, and philanthropists like the Ragens. I also love the lectures and seeing the current head of the Division of Cardiology, Dr. Robb MacLellan, continue to build the globally recognized division.”

Still, Laughlin has no intention of resting on his laurels while there’s more work to be done. “Everything requires funding,” says Laughlin. “Cardiovascular disease accounts for more deaths than any other disease in the world. Problem-solvers make our lives healthier and better. We’re so fortunate to benefit from the impact of the UW School of Medicine.”

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