March 28, 2008

Fenichel’s neurology contributions honored

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A new chair in Neurology honors Gerald Fenichel, M.D. (photo by Neil Brake)

Fenichel’s neurology contributions honored

A newly endowed chair in the Department of Neurology is honoring Gerald Fenichel, M.D., whose contributions to Vanderbilt University Medical Center and pediatric neurology span three deans, four vice-chancellors for Health Affairs and nearly four decades.

Fenichel, a professor of Neurology and Pediatrics, founded the Department of Neurology and served as chair from 1969-2001. He was director of Pediatric Neurology and neurologist-in-chief at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt until January of this year.

A gift from Fenichel supported creation of the chair, which also received contributions from friends and former residents.

Neurology chair Robert Macdonald, M.D., Ph.D., is actively recruiting a pediatric neurologist/physician/scientist to hold the Gerald M. Fenichel Chair in Neurology. An “outstanding developmental neurobiologist” who studies childhood diseases and brain development is the ideal candidate.

“The chair will honor Dr. Fenichel and the many contributions he has made to the understanding, diagnoses and treatment of childhood neurological disorders,” Macdonald said.

“His legacy is founding the Department of Neurology, his contribution in being one of the founders and second President of The Child Neurology Society and his scientific contributions in the field of neuromuscular disorders.”

Fenichel has had an impact on students and colleagues around the globe with his textbook “Clinical Pediatric Neurology: A Signs and Symptoms Approach,” now in its fifth edition.

The book, translated into six languages, provides an approach to the common presenting problems of children with disorders of the nervous system and includes clinical features, diagnosis and management of each disorder.

“He has written, single-handedly, a monograph that is the premier textbook in child neurology,” said David Charles, M.D., associate professor and vice-chair of Neurology for Education and Development.

“He has cared for so many lives with his own hands, but it is through the hands of other physicians that he has had his greatest impact. He has an exceptional talent for teaching, and countless physicians here at Vanderbilt have become better doctors because of Gerry,” Charles said. “It is with his writing, however, that his teaching is magnified, and it is through his books that his care of patients through the hands of other physicians is multiplied by a factor that you can't calculate.”

Charles said his longtime colleague has the “uncanny ability to be a friend, an advisor and a counselor.”

“Advising someone and counseling someone are quite different. He just has the innate ability to know when to do each of those and how to keep them separate,” said Charles, who met Fenichel as an undergraduate biomedical engineer at Vanderbilt.

“An advisor says, 'looking at everything you have presented, I think your best course is this,' and gives you some advice. A counselor, on the other hand, doesn't tell you what he or she thinks you ought to do, they help you make sure you are going through a good decision-making process. Most importantly, he is always a friend.”

Fenichel was recruited to Nashville from Children's Hospital of the District of Columbia in 1969. During that time Vanderbilt was covering the area of neurology with a combination of psychiatry and neurosurgery, but accreditation requirements warranted a neurologist and a Department of Neurology.

He knew Vanderbilt professor and chair of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation Bill Hillman, M.D., from a cerebral palsy meeting in Oxford, England, and Vanderbilt graduate Judson Randolph, M.D., worked down the hall from him as chief of Pediatric Surgery in Washington, D.C.

“I think between Bill Hillman and Judson Randolph, they put me forward for this job,” Fenichel said. “I came here and never regretted it, obviously, because I'm still here.”

He has held many leadership posts and received numerous awards throughout his career, including the Hower Award of the Child Neurology Society in 1997 and the Zimmerman Award from the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1998.

Fenichel has a longstanding interest in muscular dystrophy and was a member of the collaborative group that established the efficacy of corticosteroids in treating muscular dystrophy.

“Personally, I enjoy working, I enjoy seeing patients. I would feel deprived if I couldn't come to the clinic and see patients. I am still taking night call, which I've done since I've been here, and that is unusual,” he said. “I hope to keep doing it for a while.”