HARLINGEN — The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley announced Tuesday it has received a $38 million gift for the School of Medicine.

The university received the gift from the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation, and it’s the largest single donation in the history of higher education in South Texas.

Guy Bailey, UTRGV president, thanked the Legacy Foundation for its generous donation at a presentation Tuesday. Community leaders, Valley Baptist representatives and university administrators gathered for the presentation at the UTRGV Clinical Education Building.

“I’ve never been at a university where I’ve had a better partner than the Legacy Foundation,” Bailey said. “I want to thank you so much for this partnership.”

The VBLF gifted UTRGV $15 million three years ago to help establish the UTRGV Institute of Neurosciences, which is currently under construction in Harlingen.

“This is transformative in ways that are hard to express,” Bailey said. “It will change everything about what we do, the impact we have on the Valley. The benefits of this gift you will see for a long time.”

The gift is historic and crucial in many respects, said Dr. John H. Krouse, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine, which has a three-fold mission.

One part of that mission is training the next generation of physicians and biomedical scientists in the Rio Grande Valley.

Another part is conducting research that investigates diseases and medical issues of concern to the local population.

Judy Quisenberry, executive director of the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation, addressed the audience gathered for the grant to announcement at the UTRGV Clinical Education Building Auditorium on Tuesday. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

And third, it’s providing much-needed medical care to Valley residents “who often have had poor access to needed primary and specialty care.”

“This generous funding offered to the School of Medicine allows us to deliver on all three of our core missions and change forever the landscape of medical education and health care in the Valley,” Krouse said.

The gift will establish THRIVE — Transform Health Research in the Valley and Elsewhere — to make UTRGV a national epicenter for biomedical research.

“We will be able to increase the range of research activities centered in Brownsville and conducted through our South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute,” Krouse said. “We will expand into related areas such as childhood genetics, genomic bio-imaging, and regenerative medicine.”

He said it will enhance an already existing collaboration with the Institute of Neurosciences in Harlingen.

Secondly, Krouse said, through both these THRIVE funds and the establishment of a residency program in general surgery at Valley Baptist Medical Center, the School of Medicine will be able to train four new general surgeons each year in Cameron County. The School will also use the funds to expand programs in the education of biomedical scientists for its new PhD program in human genetics in Brownsville.

“Finally, the funding of our general surgery residency program at Valley Baptist will allow the School of Medicine to expand much-needed surgical care in Cameron County,” Krouse said. “It will facilitate the hiring of additional surgeons to provide surgical services. It will expand the number of general surgeons and surgical specialists over time.”

He pointed out that in many recent conversations with the public, with advocacy groups, and with elected officials, the School has learned of the strong need for accessibility to specialty and surgical services in the Valley.

“Our patients who may have access to primary care may find that when they need something more than primary care it’s difficult to find it,” Krouse said. “Through this important gift, the UTRGV School of Medicine will be able to provide that critical service in filling the gap in surgical care throughout the Valley.”

Dr. Nolan Perez, a member of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, said the gift will help end the brain drain which has affected the Valley for so long. In the past, aspiring local medical students had to accomplish their training outside the Valley. Physicians often practice where they receive their training. This has left a significant gap in the local medical community.

But no more.

“As a physician here, I’m really excited that we can finally put a dent in the access to public health care in this region,” said Perez, a gastrointestinal doctor.

“Also if you think about it, it allows our young kids the opportunity to get educated here and to stay here,” he said.

Perez is also the president of the board of trustees for the Harlingen school district, which has established a medical pipeline from high school to the UTRGV School of Medicine. The grant and its far-reaching applications will enhance opportunities for local high school students entering the medical field.

“I think today we are beginning to live the dream that we just had not too many years ago,” Perez said. “We all knew that UTRGV could indeed create enormous opportunities for our citizens.”

The money will help put UTRGV on the map, Bailey said.

“Universities around the country are ranked in something called the Top American Research Universities,” he said. “You’re talking about 200 ranked universities. Once this gift is fully realized, we will be 129th in the nation in annual giving. We will be 172 in total research expenditures.”

Not bad for a university that’s only five years old.