Posted 22nd February 2018
For most people, finding a cure for cancer or saving the world from poverty, would be a momentous achievement. For Dr Hannah Siekierkowski, CEO of New York’s own Klinkenhammer Foundation for Medical Research, it’s what she gets paid to do: just another day in the office. Matthew Cox wanted to know how she was coping with so much media attention.
“Wealth is like sea water: the more we drink, the thirstier we become. The same is true of fame…..for most people anyway. But for me? I’ve got other things to do.” She quotes Arthur Schopenhauer like he was her great uncle. Maybe he was – the European connections run deep in her family history, according to the official bio I’ve received.
The coffees arrive with a fanfare. She waits while the table is being laid out. Restless fingers continue to drum on her stylish black skirt. She checks her watch for the third time in as many minutes.
Is this making you nervous, I ask? I offer to turn off the recorder. She shakes her head briefly, her brown eyes flash a tepid smile before her attention is caught by something going on behind me.
I turn to watch a sharp-suited man who looks like George Clooney accompanying a much younger woman across the ornate lobby. They disappear into an elevator the size of a broom cupboard. The concierge didn’t even look up. I suppose that’s what you get for $5000 a night. Or fifteen bucks for a latte, in my world.
“I didn’t think this place really existed,” she continues, back with me, at least for now, “Yet it’s only a few blocks from our office. Even the cab driver didn’t believe me.”
I’d chosen the location for our interview carefully. My boss said Number Sixty Nine was classy and discreet. There was no signage on the outside. Entrance was by keypad through an unmarked door in the back alley. My best friend said it was an upmarket knocking shop for the rich and famous when they were in town….well, Getting It Off Broadway’s what he actually said.
“How was Scandinavia? Good Conference?” I tried to get her talking about her recent trip. Her A-list status was pretty high before the live TV appearance from Sweden. What we all witnessed that day had shaken the world and rocketed her into the media stratosphere.
“Look, I know you’ve got magazines to sell. I have a copy in my apartment. And I know why people are interested in what I’ve been doing. But do they really want to know what razors I shave my legs with or how I take my coffee?” she smiles, warmer this time, sips another mouthful of espresso, “this is good by the way, thank you.”
“OK, try this.” I went for a more direct approach. The bio said she’d been brought up in Brooklyn. I cut the small talk. “It isn’t about you. Our readers want to meet the person behind the job title. Someone they can relate to. Someone they can believe in. Someone they can trust with their hard-earned cash.”
She goes quiet. I’ve finally got her full attention. “This article will be syndicated into the business press and picked up by the pharmaceutical companies, the trust funds, the healthcare corporations, the investment bankers. They want to know if you can make a fast buck for them. If you can maximise the return on their investment, as they say. That’s what this is all about.”
She leans back into the sofa and pulls the cuff down over her watch. She looks me full in the face for the first time. I feel her warmth wrapping itself around me. Somehow I’ve crossed a threshold. What will come next will be from the heart. From the heart of a woman who has saved so many hearts from a lifetime of misery and suffering.
“Making money has become an obsession at the expense of really matters.” She holds up her hand before I have a chance to speak, “and before you jump in, I know, I’m just as much a part of a money-making machine. Our medical research could not continue without it.”
Her hands are running over the soft chintzy material. She’s starting to relax.
“Lawrence was right. There never was an economic argument against slavery.” Her cheeks are starting to flush. Any pretence at playing the media game has now gone. This was the person I really wanted to meet.
“People used to be more religious, more connected to a spiritual world of right and wrong, of good and evil. It wasn’t economics that led to the abolition of slavery. It was the moral argument. Nowadays, the moral argument has been washed away in a world of accountancy, financial investment, banking….a world of purely making money.”
Lawrence was the new man in her life. Her Head of Diabetes Research at the Foundation: he was also her partner, her live-in lover. Her colleagues told me she had taken fierce criticism over his appointment. Lawrence was under-qualified for the job. He’d had no previous medical training. Accusations of favouritism were thrown at her. It had been a challenging year, she pointed out.
“We have lost touch with our own humanity. People have become resources again to be bought and sold. Even in my own world of medical research, we are developing more and more profitable drugs to treat disease rather than trying to find out what causes the disease in the first place or how to prevent it.”
She tells me that Alexander Fleming never profited out of the discovery of penicillin. The most important medical breakthrough in our history was his gift to world, she explains. Such an act of human kindness today would be unthinkable. What’s changed, she continues, is our attitude. For Fleming, it was about how he could save lives. Today is about me and how I can benefit financially, often at the expense of others.
“I can’t change the world. But I can lead by example. I feel very privileged to be who I am.” She checks her watch again. Times up. The ordeal is over. Her media obligation is fulfilled. We shake hands.
And one last question. What about the future? Her work in finding a cure for Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes is reaching a tipping point, so her PR agency reports. Would she like to comment?
The smile says it all. I’ll have to wait. We’ll all have to wait. Until she is ready to tell us. She may be a reluctant celebrity but I’m hooked – she is one fascinating, enigmatic woman.