Friday, February 09, 2007

Absolute Heroes

Dr. Frederick Kaplan and a Patient (from Newsweek)
Dr. Frederick Kaplan from orthopedics at the University of Pennsylvania gave a talk today on his 15-year research on a rare genetic disease known as Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva(FOP). FOP is a startling disease that episodically transforms skeletal muscles into bone, the ossification can be triggered by any trauma, immunization, viral infection, or it may occur spontaneously. Imagine getting whiplash in an automobile accident...and then having those muscles turn into bone and never being able to move your head. Then getting an injection in your thigh...and then being unable to bend your knee ever again. Instead of Galatea coming to life, it's like a child becoming a statue before your eyes.
Dr. Kaplan presented his research with the sensitivity and intelligence of a storyteller who has unraveled this disease over the course of 15 years. As an associate professor in the 1970s, he asked a medical student what "exons" and "introns" were, and was surprised to learn of the scientific revolution that occurred over the past decade. It's incredible to see how this physician's journey from taking classes on genetics led him to discover the gene responsible for FOP. Dr. Kaplan's passion for his work and his compassion for his patients made this presentation the best talk that I have seen this year thus far. His patience, dedication, and intelligence have led him on an incredible quest as well as show the marks of true genius, and I really feel that he will continue dedicating his life to finding a cure.
I can never forget how these awe-filled moments that occur at the intersection of science and humanity hit me about every other day at UCSF. Watching Dr. Kaplan from the audience, I realized that this slightly short, unremarkable-looking doctor wearing a navy blue blazer was saving the world in his own way. Strangely, in medical school, you often feel yourself in the presence of absolute heroes -- cleverly disguised as ordinary human beings.

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