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New chair in interventional radiology honors ‘24/7’ physician

Medicine@Yale, 2011 - Nov Dec


Robert I. White Jr., M.D., professor of diagnostic radiology and director of the Yale Vascular Malformation Center, is a tireless, passionate evangelist for his chosen field of interventional radiology, a medical subspecialty that offers image-guided, catheter-based therapy for disorders of virtually every major organ in the body. So it’s fitting that a new endowed chair at the School of Medicine in interventional radiology—only the third such chair in the nation—carries his name.

And White says he “can think of no better person” to hold the Robert I. White Jr., M.D., Professorship of Interventional Radiology than its inaugural appointee, Jeffrey S. Pollak, M.D., professor of diagnostic radiology and surgery, and co-chief of the medical school’s Section of Vascular and Interventional Radiology. “Jeff is the model of a clinical scientist,” says White, who has combined research and patient care throughout his career.

A graduate of Columbia University, Pollak earned his medical degree at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He did his diagnostic radiology residency at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. His fellowship in vascular and interventional radiology was at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Dr. Pollak is an exceptional interventional radiologist who practices continuously on the forefront of his field,” says James A. Brink, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Diagnostic Radiology. “The Robert White professorship will allow him to broaden the scope of his activities in this important discipline.”

As director of Yale’s interventional radiology fellowship program, Pollak is an important mentor to the subspecialty’s future practitioners. Ashraf Thabet, M.D., a 2004 graduate of the School of Medicine who now works an interventional radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Mass., calls Pollak “an insightful, brilliant, but low-key” physician, “a truly gifted interventionist,” and an ideal choice for the new White Chair.

White is world-renowned for his expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia (HHT; also known as Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome), a heritable genetic condition in which blood vessels in certain parts of the body tend to form without capillaries. These tiny vessels are crucial to depressurizing blood as it flows from arteries to veins, and in HHT high-pressure arterial blood flows directly into veins with full force, creating fragile sites that are prone to ruptures and bleeding.

Some symptoms associated with HHT, such as frequent nosebleeds, are fairly benign. But some patients have vascular malformations in the liver, lungs, or brain that can suddenly burst, with life-threatening consequences.

White’s treatment of hundreds of families with HHT and his involvement in the establishment of HHT Centers of Excellence around the world has gained him a fan club among his patients that would be the envy of any rock star. In gratitude, more than a dozen of those patients and their families pooled the considerable resources needed to create the new endowed chair. White and his wife, Patricia Kelly-White, who has joined her husband in raising awareness of HHT, also pitched in.

One donor, Lisa Ruscitti of Ridgefield, Conn., whose son Jackson was diagnosed with HHT at Yale after he suffered a brain hemorrhage at four weeks old, uses the superlatives one hears again and again from White’s patients and their relatives. She calls him a “wonderful person” who “goes above and beyond what a physician needs to do.”

Another grateful HHT patient, Bradley E. Blevins, senior vice president and senior credit officer at The Northern Trust Company in Chicago, Ill., echoes these comments. Blevens, who has served on the board of HHT Foundation International, credits White with saving his life, and marvels that he is seemingly “available 24/7” for his patients, “answering every e-mail within an hour or two.”

Diana R. Meiches of Prides Crossing, Mass., another former HHT Foundation board member, calls White “one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met,” and says he “absolutely epitomizes compassionate care.” White treated Meiches’ husband, Marc A. Meiches, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Electric Insurance Co., for HHT, and “there is no doubt in my mind that he saved Marc’s life,” she says. Anna B. Lange, of Richmond, Va., whose family also made a contribution to the new chair, half-seriously says she thinks of White as “almost walking on water,” adding, “He literally has saved multiple lives in our family.” HHT is prevasive in the Lange family, so White has been deeply involved with the medical care of many of her loved ones. “He’s such a warm, caring person, and has such charisma,” Lange says. “ I could not adequately express our feelings, our appreciation, and our admiration for Dr. White.”

White says that the new professorship will provide Pollak with the freedom to do the clinical research needed to evaluate medical outcomes and advance the field. “I want to see this specialty become important in people’s minds, and having this chair in interventional radiology will really reflect that,” says White. “Jeff is the future.”