by Lawrence Morton, MD; Virginia Commonwealth University
The reality is that you will grieve forever... you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.
John M. “Jack” Pellock, M.D. has been inseparably linked with the advancement in the treatment of childhood epilepsy for more than 30 years. After being a champion for the care of children with epilepsy, he succumbed on May 6, 2016 to his long battle with pancreatic cancer. On that day, the child neurology community lost a dear friend in a man who had mentored several generations of child neurologists. As we recount a life, we can look at it chronologically, by awards and accomplishments, or simply the values embraced in work and home, the personal escapes to keep balance in our lives.
Jack moved to Richmond, Virginia to train in pediatrics at the Medical College of Virginia of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He next trained in child neurology at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center under the eminent Sidney Carter and Charles Pippenger, a pioneer in research and therapeutic drug monitoring related to epilepsy. He then spent two years as a staff child neurologist at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which provided him the opportunity to collaborate with researchers at the NIH, including another pioneer in epilepsy, J. Kiffin Penry.
In 1978, he returned to Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, joining Edwin Myer in the newly established Division of Child Neurology. He was to remain at VCU for the remainder of his career. At VCU, he was promoted to Professor of Neurology in 1988 and served as Division Chair of Child Neurology from 1995 through 2014. During this time, he also served eight years as Vice Chairman of the Department of Neurology. At the time of his death, he was Senior Associate Dean for Professional Education.
Jack quickly established himself at VCU as an academician, as a clinical investigator, and as an advocate for children. He amassed a record in research and awards few physicians can match. In his professional career he was an investigator in over 100 drug trials for epilepsy in children and adults. He was involved in advancements in epilepsy care for children for more than 30 years. Recognizing the difficulty in getting new drugs approved for children with epilepsy, he worked tirelessly to make pediatric labeling for new seizure medications easier. This initiative which was called PEACE (Pediatric Epilepsy Academic Consortium on Extrapolation), and it resulted in a change of FDA policy that resulted in new treatments becoming available more easily to children with epilepsy.
Jack authored over 200 journal articles and numerous chapters and reviews. In 1984 he co-authored Neurological Emergencies in Infancy and Childhood, the first textbook of its kind; it was updated in its second edition in 1993. That year he was co-editor of Pediatric Epilepsy, Diagnosis and Therapy. This textbook has become the authoritative textbook on pediatric epilepsy, and the fourth was completed just prior to his death.
Dr. Pellock received the J. Kiffin Penry Award for Excellence in Neurology from the American Epilepsy Society in 2004. He received the Founder Society Award from VCU in 2010 and in 2011 was awarded Americas Top Pediatricians. He served as the American Epilepsy Society President in 2011 and received the 2015 Champion of Epilepsy Award by the Epilepsy Foundation of America. Recently, the American Epilepsy Society established a travel award as an enduring honor to his legacy.
His love of patient care fueled his research and advocacy. His other great passion was teaching. It would be impossible to list all of his lectures over the decades at Virginia Commonwealth University to medical students and residents. He was a most sought after lecturer to discuss epilepsy which he was able to combine with his love of travel having an extensive lecturing schedule. In addition, he regularly and frequently participated in the J. Kiffin Penry Epilepsy Mini-Fellowship Program which has trained generations of neurology residents in the care of seizures over the years. He became a member of the Board of Directors for this program in 1996 and continued to serve throughout his career. In addition, he was developed the Pediatric Epilepsy Preceptorship, which took place just prior to the annual Child Neurology Society meeting. He helped secure enduring funding, acted as Chairman of the program’s Board of Directors, and served as course director since 2000. Recently renamed in Jack’s honor, this program has over the years provided intensive training in epilepsy to hundreds of child neurology residents.
Tireless and enthusiastic, Jack had seemingly endless energy. Coupled with an eternal optimism and omnipresent smile, he had a talent for bringing diverse people and organizations together with one purpose forging an agreement in the advocacy for the care of the patient with epilepsy. During the most heated of discussions, he had a rare talent for remaining calm, allowing the emotions to flow past and bring people together. He had a unique talent for consensus building.
Many of us who knew Jack knew he had a love of travel and golf. Less well known, however, was his love and talent for music. At departmental social events, during the course of the evening he would work his way over to a piano and start playing. He shared stories of his background of humble means; as an accomplished musician, he played at events in college in order to earn spending money and to cover costs.
Figure 2: Jack and Mary Pellock.
He was devoted to his family, his wife Mary, daughter Kayte, and his son Michael. In his last years, he became grandfather to Reed, regaling us with stories of his grandson’s latest achievement with more pride in them than one man could possibly contain. He emphasized the importance of family. Recognizing that dedicated physicians can easily get caught up in patient care, he was quick to provide sage advice. Always find some activity when your children were young that you build your schedule around and it becomes inviolate to miss. For him, examples included coaching soccer and basketball for nearly ten years. He would say that it became too easy to miss your children growing up, hoping to catch up some day. That by having at least one consistent activity, you would find yourself making time for the other important events in life. He was also quick to remind everyone in the Child Neurology Division that, with the long hours we spent together, we functioned much like a work family and needed to carry our family values and dedication to each other into the workplace. Jack was also a deeply devoted man in his religious life. He stayed active in his church parish serving on multiple committees and as a Eucharistic minister.
He was active in his local community and at Virginia Commonwealth University. Other than traveling for lectures and meetings, he stayed in Richmond, expressing little interest in wanting to live anywhere else. Although already keeping a schedule for work and family, he remained active in his local community. In addition, the other great passion in Jack’s life was VCU basketball. He was a regular season tickets holder and during March Madness would, when possible, adjust his schedule to attend as many games as possible whether at home or away. Even with his progressing illness and the toll it was taking on his increasingly frail health, he traveled to New York this past March to watch VCU compete in the division playoffs.
Rarely does one have an opportunity to eulogize an extraordinary physician scientist, a man who has added to our knowledge of a disease and its treatment. John M. “Jack” Pellock was such a person. He was also a great mentor and friend. Jack’s contributions cannot be exaggerated, and he leaves the field of epilepsy poorer for his absence but with a rich, enduring legacy.