The tables are decorated, the candles lit, the sound check done. Guests arrive, slowly at first, then in great streams, well-dressed and trailing happy chatter. After the hors d’oeuvres, dinner is served, and then, says Brad Miller, comes the best and most moving part of the UW Medicine Salute Harborview Gala — when guests raise their auction paddles to donate to Harborview Medical Center.

“You can just see, from dollar one, that it’s going directly to the mission,” says Miller, a member of the Western Washington Toyota Dealers Association (WWTDA).

That mission, explains Eileen Whalen, R.N., MHA, executive director of Harborview Medical Center, is what separates Harborview from other healthcare providers. It’s a mission of providing world-class care for patients from all walks of life, including the working poor and children and adults not covered by health insurance. In fact, Harborview and UW Medicine faculty and staff based there provide more charity care — approximately $187 million in fiscal year 2010 — than any other hospital in Washington state.

Providing this care is a difficult proposition. “Every year, we work on a very slim margin,” says Whalen. That’s why the gala — and the WWTDA’s support of the gala — is so important.

The Toyota dealers’ commitment has been significant. In 2005, Miller, who’d only recently become acquainted with Harborview’s reach and services, made a pitch to his fellow dealership owners. He reminded them that Harborview, the only Level 1 adult and pediatric trauma and burn hospital in a four-state region, touched every dealer’s community. It was a convincing argument, and the WWTDA made a 10-year, $1 million pledge to Harborview, one that helps underwrite the gala.

Pam Nelson, another Toyota dealer, remembers that meeting well. But when she and her colleagues agreed to make the gift, Nelson didn’t have any direct connection to the hospital, and she thought she never would. She was wrong. “Within one year,” Nelson says, “I was in Harborview.”

Nelson’s care displays another facet of Harborview Medical Center: its expertise in diverse medical specialties. UW Medicine neurosurgeon Richard G. Ellenbogen, M.D., UW professor and chair in the Department of Neurological Surgery and the Theodore S. Roberts Endowed Chair in Pediatric Neurosurgery, removed the non-malignant tumor that had infiltrated Nelson’s spinal column and wrapped itself around other organs. Nelson was so pleased with her care at Harborview — surgery, physical therapy — that she returned for rotator cuff surgery and other services.

“When you like something, you go back to it,” says Nelson. And in addition to giving through her dealership, she also supports Harborview on a personal level. “As a patient, I saw a lot of people in need,” she says.

Johnese Spisso, R.N., MPA, chief health system officer for UW Medicine health system and vice president for medical affairs at the University of Washington, has seen those needs firsthand, too. She works with leadership teams to maintain financial viability for Harborview and other entities within the system (see below). Support like that provided by the WWTDA, she says, “really allows us to improve the health of the community in profound ways.”

Miller agrees. “Harborview is really akin to a natural resource,” he says. And in making a gift to Harborview, Miller says, “we’re making a better world for our customers and our co-workers.”

WWTDA member Brad Miller is pictured with his wife, Judy, and his two daughters, Melissa (left) and Nicole (right) at the gala.