Frank Deford
December 06, 1976 12:00 PM

Doris Tulcin has never earned a dollar in her adult life, but since May she has been one of the top women executives in the U.S. As president of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, she heads a national health charity that raises more than $8.5 million annually and runs 300 local chapters and a unique network of 121 medical centers. Mrs. Tulcin’s responsibility is the care of 12,000 children and young adults who suffer from the most common lethal genetic disease in the United States. “I suppose if I went out in the marketplace today, nobody would hire me,” she jokes. “But I’m just as glad. Nobody could pay me for the way I feel about my work with Cystic Fibrosis.”

A tall (5’9″), striking redhead, Mrs. Tulcin, 48, is the mother of two grown children (one of whom has CF). She was elected to her presidency on Mother’s Day, appropriately, by a largely male board of trustees. “Not bad for a suburban housewife,” one of them kidded her afterward. The post is hardly a garden club sinecure. There is no pay, and the job is full-time. Tulcin, who lives in New York’s suburban Westchester County with her husband, Robert, a partner in a Wall Street brokerage house, must commute regularly to foundation headquarters in Atlanta. She visits Washington and chapters about the country. “When the job came up,” she says, “I told my husband: ‘I’m going to have to do this with no strings attached. Our other life has to be put aside.’ He’s supported me completely. What little social life we have now, Bob sets up.”

Doris Tulcin has been working for Cystic Fibrosis for more than 20 years, ever since doctors discovered that her child had the disease. About one out of every 1,600 people in the U.S. is born with it, and as many as 10 million Americans are carriers, but in 1955 CF was considered rare and altogether baffling. It produces a thick mucus that clogs the lungs and causes breathing difficulty. It also damages the pancreas, making proper digestion of food impossible. All but a few males born with CF are sterile as adults. “The diagnosis in the 1950s was literally a death sentence,” Mrs. Tulcin says. Few doctors were aware of the disease, and the public knew even less. Soon after the national foundation was started in 1955, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, then governor of Connecticut, agreed to speak at a CF banquet. “He came up to me beforehand,” Mrs. Tulcin says, “and asked, ‘Doris, what is it?’ ”

Today 50 percent of those born with the disease (including the Tulcins’ child) live past 18, and the upper limits of survival are not known. “As far as we’ve come,” says Tulcin, “I find it impossible to think of us as a success story when every day in America three more children die of cystic fibrosis.”

Tulcin can be a tough fund-raiser. “I know many people are embarrassed about putting others on the spot,” she says. “But I can’t stop to worry about their guilt feelings.” Tulcin finds ironically that the advance of feminism has dried up the supply of women volunteers. “In years past I organized women who felt honored and privileged to be able to do something for someone else,” she says. “But now no one thinks about the ends. Women have come to believe that if you are not being paid, it is not worth your time. It is beneath you.”

This trend comes at a bad time because the foundation’s responsibilities increase as it helps keep children alive longer. The price is high. Many CF kids must take 40 or more pills a day, and almost all require inhalation treatment and arduous physical therapy two or three times a day. While the search goes on for the cure, or at least a controlling drug (like insulin in diabetes), more is asked of the foundation and the woman who heads it.

“The best thing that could happen to me as president is for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to go out of business,” Doris Tulcin says. “That would mean we had found the cure.” And then? “My husband and I would play more tennis,” she replies. “And I could go back to the piano. Before I got into this, I was really a pretty good piano player.”

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