On October 6th, the UCLA Department of Neurosurgery, led by the highly-acclaimed neurosurgeon, Dr. Neil A. Martin, hosted its 5th Annual Visionary Ball at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The Visionary Ball raises approximately $2 million dollars each year, thanks to the great support of its partners, patrons and donors for innovative research, the latest technology, training and recruiting the neurosurgical pioneers of tomorrow, ultimately ensuring UCLA’s excellence in patient care.
It was an evening filled with high intellect, passion, vision, and philanthropy, honoring those exceptional individuals who have made great contributions to the medical advancements and community at UCLA. Dr. Martin says, “The Visionary Ball is for people who can see beyond the immediate and obvious future and imagine a better future and make it happen.”
When asked about the future of neurosurgery, Dr. Martin optimistically said: “The role of neurosurgery won’t be just focused on cutting things out like brain tumors, or vascular malformations, it will be about repairing the brain, such as neurobiotics, brain pacemakers, and electronic devices that augment the function of the spinal cord to the brain or biological therapies like stem cells. The next frontier is to do what we’ve been dreaming about for the last century - for patients with Traumatic Brain Injury, Parkinsons, Stroke, and Alzheimers – to repair those areas in the brain that have been damaged so that we can restore function.” Dr. Martin’s enthusiasm is contagious.
The star studded evening was hosted by the gorgeous and beautifully-spirited E! News host, Giuliana Rancic. With her graceful wit, it was the perfect casting choice for the ‘brainy evening.’ Well-respected and distinguished veteran actor, Michael Caine, presented the Visionary Award to entrepreneur, film producer and philanthropist, Sidney Kimmel – whose contributions to cancer research go unmatched at approximately $550 million dollars to various organizations. Mr. Kimmel’s humility for his generosity has earned him the nickname: “the quiet giant in the world of cancer research.” He doesn’t use the word, “cure” anymore, he says, “for that would be looking for the magic bullet and we don’t believe in that.” He wants to ‘control’ cancer. His tribute reel was hosted by broadcast anchor, Charlie Gibson.
Nobel Prize winner Louis J. Ignarro, Ph.D, Professor of Molecular & Medical Pharmacology at UCLA, received the evening’s Medical Visionary Award. In 1998, Dr. Ignarro won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his research discoveries showing the powerful ability of nitric oxide (or NO) to improve cardiovascular health and prevent heart disease. He’s written a best-selling book called, NO More Heart Disease, in 2005 and is the world’s leading authority on the nutritional approach to cardiac wellness.
When asked about the role of processed foods contributing to heart disease, he replied, “here in America, we have a serious problem with processed foods which is now spreading throughout Europe and even Asia. 70% of Americans are overweight. The leading cause of morbidity and untimely death in the U.S. is heart disease. Heart disease comes from diabetes which comes from obesity which comes from poor diet and lack of exercise. The big problem is packaged foods and saturated fats.” Dr. Ignarro emphatically emphasized, “we need to get together with the news media – convince the people of the world that we have to pay extreme attention to our diet and begin to exercise – medicine you take when it’s too late – when you have a disease. You want to prevent a disease. We need to adopt a policy of preventative medicine which is something most physicians don’t understand.” Dr. Ignarro’s extraordinary passion for good health has never wavered. You can learn more about Dr. Ignarro’s “Health is Wealth” philosophy at http://healthiswealth.net.
Renowned choreographer/director and brain tumor survivor, Doriana Sanchez, was presented the Courage Award. Several years ago, Sanchez had a seizure and fell on a set piece in Las Vegas, resulting in a back and hip injury. She had a few more seizures, not knowing what they were, but affecting her motion. When Sanchez discovered it was a tumor, after experiencing one more seizure, she was rushed to UCLA where Dr. Martin performed 18 hours of surgery. Two days later she was walking and doing plies because she ‘was so excited that she could move.’ Last night, Sanchez presented a beautiful dance tribute to her doctors and paramedics as a moving thank you.
The effervescently good-looking John Stamos who never ages, presented the Rodney Respect Award to his friend and former co-star, comedian Bob Saget, a former Honorary Mayor of the Palisades, who in the spirit of the award’s namesake, Rodney Dangerfield, kept the room in stitches with some rather unsavory, albeit hilarious jokes. Saget, a big fan of the Palisades, was almost unrecognizable in his new prescription eyeglasses, which gave him a distinct, edgy look that worked for him.
There were many other medical luminaries who highlighted the evening with their attendance. Dr. Gerald Levey, an Internist and Endocrinologist widely known for his research on the thyroid gland and the heart, comes from the ‘classic days’ of medicine. You only have to speak with him for five seconds, and you know that this is a doctor who listens, empathizes, and loves to connect with humanity. Being a doctor is the perfect marriage for him. Dr. Levey spent thirty years of his career in both academic medicine and private sector medical affairs. He is now Dean Emeritus of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
At the young age of four, Dr. Levey wanted to be a doctor, influenced by his pediatrician who made house calls. “This was during the second-world war and that’s what they did in those days,” he said. When asked about how the role of ‘bedside manner’ has changed, Levey responded, “what you’re witnessing now is the return somewhat to the old days if you have an illness - anybody who has ever been a patient knows that the relationship with your doctor is so important -the fact that he can relate to you to, that he’s a human being, that he can relate to you with your fears, concerns, your pain. Slow down. These are human beings who are sick. Let’s do it right.”
Dr. David Hovda, Director of UCLA’s Brain Injury Research Center and Professor of Neurosurgery and Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, was another neuro standout on the red carpet. He was given the Strength of the Nation award by the US Army, the highest award that’s given to a civilian by the US army, for helping returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan with head injuries. He proudly wore the pin that evening. In 2007, Dr. Hovda along with Arnold Fisher built the Fisher house, which is the “Ronald Mcdonald house of the military”. His devoted efforts have helped many veterans and their families heal.
Patiently waiting on the red carpet with his statuesquely stunning wife, was Dr. Nader Pouratian, a young looking neurosurgeon at UCLA, who has already made strong impressions in the neuroscience community. This is a doctor who is zestfully passionate “about the brain and what we don’t know about it and how we can use neurosurgery to learn even more and advance the science of the brain and improve patients’ quality of life," he says.
What is Dr. Pouratian’s favorite function of the brain?
“I’m fascinated by how our brain processes language. We all take for granted how easy it is for us to talk to each other, to understand one another, and say things back and forth and it’s one of the most complex and sophisticated systems we have. We spend a lot of time studying that so we can hopefully use that to help people who can’t communicate, regain that function.”
Dr. Pouratian explains the varied levels of discipline required to be a neurosurgeon.
“It takes a lot of discipline, but it’s more than just being there in the moment, it’s planning ahead, it’s thinking, it’s understanding, it’s being there before you get there and then fully engrossing yourself once you’re in the middle of the surgery, especially with things that I love to do, to do surgeries so that we don’t hurt people, so that we preserve every last bit of language and function and people come out just as good, if not better than they were when they went into surgery. It’s a process that starts way before we get to the operating room and keeps us thinking even when we’re done.”
When not operating on the brain, Dr. Pouratian does research so he can bring his research and clinical skills together to advance the field.
Interwoven amongst the attendees was an extraordinary couple named, Dr. Thomas Davies and his wife, Nadia, who had just lost their daughter a year ago, to Epilepsy. In 1977, Dr. Paul Crandell at UCLA saved their daughter’s life. Unfortunately, her seizures were not gone, but that never stopped her ambitions. With half a brain, she had a remarkable IQ, proving the brain’s plasticity, and had earned a doctorate degree by 26. But her seizures continued throughout her life and last year she underwent an extremely successful operation so that she would have no more seizures. Eleven months after the surgery she died in her sleep. (SUDEP) Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy. In 2007, the Davies have endowed a chair for Dr. Crandall, “the only chair known to date,” Davies says, “that researches epilepsy.”
For those interested in helping fund this cause, please contact the http://neurosurgery.ucla.edu/
While this is just one night honoring all those on the forefront of neuroscience, everyday should be a commemoration to these dedicated professional individuals who are in the throes of life and death circumstances. It’s evident that after all of these years of performing neurosurgery, Dr. Martin is in his element. He enthusiastically explains how our brain has over 100 billion neurons. His hands zealously demonstrate how our brain has one quadrillion connections. “That’s like 100,000 laptops between your ears,” he says.
What is Dr. Martin’s favorite function of the brain?
"Creativity. By far. It’s the one thing that really separates us from every other animal or organism. Imagination and creativity – the ability to see beyond what exists right in front of you. That’s really what this ball is about."
“The brain,” he says, “is the last frontier.”