Bill Baun wouldn’t be where he is today without cancer. It’s been a constant presence throughout his life.
A stage 4 prostate cancer survivor, the disease is part of Baun’s identity. Ask him about himself and the second thing he’ll tell you — after declaring his college pride in Louisiana State University — is that he comes from a family with a history of cancer. His motherwas diagnosed with colon cancer when she was just 5 years old. His father and grandfather both died of prostate cancer.
Baun, now the wellness officer at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and a pioneer in the field of corporate wellness, witnessed firsthand the emotional and financial toll cancer has on those around it. His mother died when he was a freshman in college, leaving his father bankrupt from the medical expenses.
To put himself through college, Baun joined the ROTC. He graduated from LSU in 1971 with a degree in economics. Instead of putting his degree to use, he became an Army Ranger in an airborne unit, serving the majority of his active duty in Germany protecting and transporting nuclear weapons all over the world. As a member of the military police, he spent a great deal of time performing medical evacuations for accidents and had several scares with terrorist groups. His company also protected the largest nuclear weapons depot at that time in Europe.
“I went through hardships in the service,” Baun said. “I watched people die. I held people while they died. And all that really changed me.”
And it’s what he credits as setting himself on a course toward shaping the field of corporate wellness. Those experiences instilled in Baun a desire to care for those who confront emotional trauma on a daily basis, much like the staff at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Baun, who just turned 67, has received numerous honors throughout his lengthy career in corporate wellness, most recently the Health Enhancement Research Organization’s Bill Whitmer Leadership Award and induction to its Hall of Fame in August 2015.
Yet there was one more incident after leaving the Army that shaped Baun’s commitment to wellness.
Six months after taking a job as youth activities director, Baun was rear-ended in his Ford Pinto on his way to a seventh-grade basketball game. The collision broke his back. After having his L1 through L4 vertebrae fused, he spent six months immobile in the hospital waiting for his spinal cord to heal.
During his recovery Baun met a man who had been in a motorcycle accident. Watching his recovery solidified Baun’s path toward helping people get and stay well.
“I remember when they took his first leg,” Baun said. “Then they took the second leg. And it hit me so hard that I was going to probably walk out of here someday and he was never going to walk again. That gave me the inspiration for my next career. I said I want to do something that is going to help people like this.”
That opportunity to help came in the form of Bob Patton, now a professor emeritus of kinesiology at the University of North Texas. Back in 1977, Patton was an associate professor with his sights set on a new discipline called exercise science — the study of how the body moves. His academic interests eventually broadened to health promotion and preventive medicine, which served as the beginnings of the modern-day concept of wellness.
“Bob was a phenomenal salesman,” Baun said. “I bought into it right away. What was funny was that he was brand new at all this, so he would study the night before and then teach it to us the next day. Literally there was no textbook.”
Under Patton’s tutelage, Baun was on the forefront of the movement to keep people well, which has since grown into today’s multibillion-dollar corporate wellness industry. And that is where he has remained for the past 38 years. During that time Baun has witnessed firsthand what works — and what doesn’t — in corporate wellness. As MD Anderson Cancer Center’s head of wellness, Baun continues to set the standard for the steps employers should take to keep their workforce well.
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