Dr. Howard Gendelman will receive the Jewish Federation of Omaha Humanitarian of the Year Award. The community will honor him during the JFO Annual Meeting June 5 at 7 p.m. The entire community is invited to attend. Howard is married to Bonnie Bloch; they are parents to Sierra and Jason Tobias and Lesley, Adam and Jennifer Gendelman and grandparents to Emma Ehrenkranz, Sacha Tobias and Baby Boy Tobias.
These words affectionately describe Howard, written by his daughter Sierra, on the occasion of him receiving a Life Time Achievement Award from the International Society for Neurovirology.
“For the past 32 years, I have seen my father’s endless commitment to progressing and innovating with his medical research. He has fought tirelessly for all patients to find discoveries to combat serious and often life-threatening medical ailments. His research offers hope to so many that cannot fight for themselves. He is a visionary.”
“This man is many things to many people. He is a mentor and teacher to his students, his fellows and his faculties. He is an approachable leader to his staff. He has healed and given hope to many of his patients. And he is a brilliant trailblazer who has succeeded in discovering how the brain’s environment is altered by disease, but can be repaired in ways that were unimaginable even five years ago. To my siblings, to me and my mother, he is simply a loving and devoted father and husband. If it is possible to be endlessly committed to your craft and to your family, that describes the father who raised me. He taught us to live life to the fullest, dream big and never forget the profound impact of the human connection, friendship and community.”
It is that balance between making enormous strides in his professional life and simultaneously be utterly present in community life that sets Howard apart, and makes him such a perfect example of what a Humanitarian ought to be. Being present, for others but also for one’s self means finding the joy in life—being there for the weekly Shabbat home cooked dinner and connecting with the people in one’s life as thoroughly as being there in the lab, discovering, researching, being a role model and never giving up the endless quest for better medical treatment. How many of us would allow one or the other to take second place? Not Howard.
Howard is the Margaret R. Larson professor of Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases, Chairman of the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience and Director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disorders at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. It’s a mouth full, not to mention that when I called him to talk about this article, he shared he was in the middle of training for a marathon. Howard obtained degrees in Science and Russian Literature from Muhlenberg College, an M.D. from the Pennsylvania State University and received Clinical and Research Training in Internal Medicine, Neurology and Infectious Diseases at Montefiore Hospital, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center. He held faculty positions at Hopkins, the National Institutes of Health, the Uniformed Services University and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Howard retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In March of 1993, he joined the faculty of UNMC.
“Howie has a very keen, creative mind, matched only by his enormous drive for discovery,” said UNMC Chancellor Emeritus, Harold M. Maurer, M.D.
“He attacks important scientific problems, where solutions would benefit millions of patients with dreaded diseases. In addition to his scientific prowess , he is a strong leader , a wonderful person who often speaks from the heart, and has a refreshing sense of humor. I feel he has the ability to win the Nobel prize. As chancellor , I’ve always said “give me 10 more Howie Gendelmans.”
During his 35 year young career he trained more than 50 students, fellows and junior faculties who are now Deans, departmental chairpersons, professors and leaders in the pharmaceutical industry and in healthcare. He built a department that was ranked in the bottom quartile when he took its reigns and now is amongst the top 10 in the nation. The community has honored him by establishing the Professorship in his name at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. That position is now filled by Dr. Shilpa Buch. .
His research is multifaceted and focuses on finding a CURE for HIV/AIDS and in improving the quality of life of those stricken with Parkinson’s disease. While seemingly very different diseases Howard has connected them through his discoveries. He is highly respected worldwide for his scientific accomplishments and is ranked in the top 1% of all scientists by the citations given to his scholarly works.
In the now third edition of the book, the Neurology of AIDS, where Howard is the senior editor a patient writes a tribute to how his research discoveries have translated into improving the well being of those affected by HIV/AIDS. A patient writes, “three days after receiving this undeniable death sentence, we received some much-needed good news. His name is Dr. Gendelman. In Dr. Gendelman, we found hope. “Apparently, the AIDS virus attacks people in different ways. Dr. Gendelman told us that having HIV affect the brain in such a devastating way with no other signs of AIDS was rare. It is nothing short of a miracle that I am alive today. Just two months ago, my viral count was over one million and I was given two months to live. Today, my viral count is barely detectable. Dr. Gendelman always tells me I am medical history in the making.”
You see, its a fairly typical thing for Howard to insert in a conversation: a real-life example this story so aptly makes.
“I was seeing this woman who had lost consciousness at Creighton University hospital. I was asked to fashion a diagnosis and also suggest treatments. I saw that the patient was in the final stages of HIV and had AIDS dementia. It was more than 20 years ago so there weren’t the effective drugs now available. We got them directly through the companies who were testing their use then ground them placing them into a stomach tube. After several tortuous months she finally made a nearly “miraculous” complete recovery. Yes, saving a life has an immeasurable effect in science, in treatment and in life.” “The essence of what I try to be and do, is what it says in the Gemara,” Howard said. “When you save a life, you save the world. To make a real difference, is what drives most physicians and scientists.”
Actors and community activists such as Elizabeth Taylor and Sharon Stone lauded and retold the story in the foreword they co-wrote for Howard’s book with Mathilde Krim, founding chairman and chairman of the board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Harris Gelbard, M.D., Ph.D. has known Dr. Gendelman (Howie to him) “since 1992, when I met him in the context of an NIH-funded program project.”
Upon hearing of Howard’s Award, he said:
“I am THRILLED that he is being named Humanitarian of the Year – his work has touched many, and offers the promise of changing the way we treat HIV-1 on a global level. He is my oldest and closest collaborator outside my institution and has been involved with helping me for the majority of my professional career. While our training paths and skill sets are very different, he has been a guiding force in my career.
“But it is his ability to meet the insatiable demands of work with an endearing and at times brash attitude toward life, always tempered with the motive force of Tikkun Olam that truly sets him apart and makes the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Omaha extraordinarily lucky to have him there.”
While Howard has practiced medicine for 35 years he says that teaching others is his model laudable accomplishment. He shares “that when it comes to science, I have to share ideas and communicate with other scientists and students. I have to not only impart information but also the importance of the work, the passion, the perspectives and the philosophy behind all we do. It’s why I enjoy spending time teaching. Whether you teach four-year-olds or advanced scientists, the sharing of knowledge transcends all including the world.”
Simultaneously, Howard and his colleagues have been researching Parkinson’s Disease for close to 18 years. Together with Dr. Pamela Santamaria and R. Lee Mosley, Howard reached a milestone in the effort to harness the immune system to slow or even halt the progression of Parkinson’s Disease. “In an early clinical trial in humans, Howard and his team used drugs to shift a population of white blood cells from destructive mode to a protective state that can help defend against brain injury. The results of the trial indicate that it is possible to go beyond treating symptoms to slowing or even halting the disease itself.” (OWH, March 27, 2017).
“With teaching comes never ending learning,” Howard added.
“Forty years ago, I received my Medical School acceptance letter. It said one thing that stuck with me: ‘We are committed to a lifetime of learning.’ It dawned on me how important that word was: ‘learning.’ It’s the key to everything I do. “At my interview before being accepted into Medical School, one of the interviewers asked that perennial question: where do you see yourself in 40 years? “I told him that this is really not the best question. A better one would be to ask me it in 40 years. The interviewer looked bewildered. Yes, I said lets meet again when I’m 60 and if I can just reflect back on the past 40 years and simply smile that would be my greatest achievement but also the best answer.”
Joel Alperson has known Howard for many years, but their friendship deepened when Howard was President of Beth Israel. “He asked me to join the synagogue board,” Joel remembered, “and we found we shared a passion for the well-being of the synagogue. Howard is a fascinating man. People may know him through his work at UNMC and see a brilliant scientist who is extremely driven to reach his goals. Or they may know him from Shul, where he is passionate about its strength and viability. Know him at home, and you’ll see a man who is friendly and warm. How people see him is very much a product of the setting; in truth, he is all those things simultaneously. In Howard’s case, Shabbat is extra beneficial!” Joel added he doubts the Omaha Jewish Community has ever seen a more deserving recipient of the Humanitarian of the Year Award. “I say this as a friend, but also as an objective community member. He came here as one man. Nowadays, he has 150 people working in his department. Think of all the people he has educated over the years, who in turn are able to be a benefit to others; the ripple effect is astounding. When Howard told me he treated patients in addition to his research, I was surprised. He shared it’s essential to remember the human face of medicine.”
UNMC Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold shares:
“Dr. Gendelman truly exemplifies our mission to lead the world in transforming lives to create a healthy future for all individuals and communities. Each day, he is working to change human lives, to make someone’s life better.”
According to daughter Sierra, his accomplishments might tempt people to imagine Howard as a very serious man. That is not the case:
“The side we saw [growing up] was a fun, silly, spontaneous man who lives in the moment.”
Beth Israel Rabbi Ari Dembitzer agrees:
“Howie makes it a point to not take himself too seriously. He achieves so much, but he continues to show incredible humility.”
“Environment is a key ingredient to having a successful life,” Howard said. “I have a great family, live in a great community and I work at a great University. Those three things are essential; if I lived somewhere else, things wouldn’t be this way. I am humbled when these worlds collide. Being named Humanitarian of the Year is both thought provoking and joyful.”
“Curing Parkinson’s Disease during the day time and putting together carts for the kids to play with at Beth Israel in his off hours, that combination perfectly illustrates Howard’s dedication,” JFO President Bruce Friedlander said. “He doesn’t stop when he leaves the office; he cares deeply about our synagogue life and takes care of our children. We as a community are very lucky Howard is with us.”