It would be typical in biographical statements written for the occasion of one of our colleagues being given an august award for some manner of achievement that we march through a linear recounting of their career trajectory, assuming this will somehow explain to us how it is they won the glittering prize we, as a collective body, are about to bestow upon them. When we give awards for some scientific achievement, or some particular teaching prowess, or some singular accomplishment, that perhaps makes sense. We are headed in the direction of a singular event, or a particular part of a career.
This award, the CNS Roger and Mary Brumback Award for Lifetime Achievement in Child Neurology, is quite different. It acknowledges that the person we honor has spent the entirety of their professional life devoted to making the lives of children with neurologic disorders better, more manageable, more understandable, perhaps even more comfortable. It acknowledges a singular devotion to our craft and developing it in multi-faceted ways. It acknowledges the contributions that are manifestly public, as well as the hidden ones that are also necessary to move things along. It is a recognition that the individual does everything in their power to solve some challenge or problem that our patients and their families face day in and day out. It embraces the humble and the grand, the pedestrian but crucial things that stand in the way as well as the broad strokes of great insights and discoveries. It speaks to the totality of a professional life.
As such, this award speaks more to a person’s character and temperament than it does to individual achievements and accomplishments. It speaks less to papers or books written and more to a way of living into a life. It speaks more to the “why” of a life than it does to the “what and where” of a life.
So, I will acknowledge the extraordinary places where Jeff was formed – UCLA, Harbor Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital. And the places he stopped along the way – CHOP, Mayo/Rochester, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Alberta Children’s Hospital. These are all important and wonderful places, noble in their attributes and full of remarkable colleagues. But many live their professional lives in great places with wonderful colleagues, and they are not recognized for their lifetime achievement.
We should speak instead to the virtues he has embodied. An indefatigable drive to make the lives of children with neurologic disease, particularly epilepsy, better. A remarkable ability to connect with frightened parents and make them feel safer, and in good hands. As one who inherited quite a number of his patients when he left Boston Children’s Hospital decades ago, I can testify to parents and children speaking of his kindness, his calm, and his manifest concern for their well-being.
We should speak of his unerring sense of what matters to us as a profession, even if some of the issues to which he applied his cogent thinking seemed nearly penitential for many of us. His efforts at rationalizing our coding and billing and establishing standards for what we do and how we should do it. He recognized this was important for us as a profession, but it was even more important for our transparent conduct towards the public.
We should speak of his efforts to advocate for all of us in addressing weighty matters such as SUDEP with families early in the course of our treatment of their children, as difficult as that may prove to be. He never shied away from difficult conversations, with families or with colleagues. Consistently honest, and invariably kind. He is a model for us all.
We should speak of his early understanding of the importance of big data, and how it could be used to improve the care and lives of children across entire jurisdictions. When many of us thought that this was either a pernicious tool of those who would commodify our work even further, reduce it to measuring outcomes by winkle-picking data, he recognized that like any tool, it could be used for good or ill purpose. He invited us all to join him in using it to improve the health of all children, especially those who had not always had access to excellent care.
We should speak of his balance between rigorous professional demands and his family life, his devotion as a husband and father. Having been present when he and his wife first met, and knowing his two daughters, and the delight he so clearly feels about them, I can affirm that we can all marvel at the good fortune of this family, and how it was always in the forefront of his mind and heart.
We should speak of his good fellowship. Some of us have been fortunate enough in “the before time” to have embarked on splendid culinary adventures, either at CNS meetings or when being invited to speak in places he was serving. His ability to make disparate members of our tribe feel comfortable and welcomed at the table speaks to a vision of what we could all be as a group.
We should speak of his extraordinary wit and sharp sense of humor. Two scenes come readily to mind: The first finds Jeff walking into a chaotic ED setting with a child in status epilepticus, EKG paper flying everywhere, much shouting, random Brownian motion on the part of residents. Realizing he had to assert some order on all this chaos, Jeff raises his voice clearly above the din: “No wait! Everybody mambo!” Then, as everybody pauses, puzzled by what they just heard, he quietly walks to the head of the stretcher and takes charge.
A second scene finds him being bedeviled by a neonatologist for some precise estimation of what an extreme premie’s cognitive outcome might be. Jeff patiently explains the data we then had and its limitations, and being asked one more time for an estimate, sighs and says “Do I look like a burning bush?”
And so, on the occasion of Jeff being given this richly deserved honor, we can paraphrase Boswell’s remark on Samuel Johnson: Whenever we find ourselves going down an unfamiliar road, we meet him on his way coming back.