Eugene E. Bleck, MD
May 2, 1923 – September 14, 2014
A Tribute to Dr. Eugene Bleck
Respectfully submitted, Helen Meeks Horstmann, MD
If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
- Isaac Newton
With Gene Bleck’s passing the medical community lost a giant. He was the orthopaedic guru of the cerebral palsy world. He was also a California free thinker which helped him break away from rigidly held views.
He started life as a Wisconsin Midwesterner and was born in Milwaukee. As a child he was educated by the Sisters of the Holy Child at St. Anastasia’s in Waukegan, Illinois. He graduated from college and medical school from Marquette University. His education by the Jesuits at Marquette University started a deep Jesuit connection. The rigor of his education’s deeply philosophic and religious roots permeated his life. His California license plate read: EEBAMDG. If you know what this means, you have some insight as to what Gene was about. AMDG became part of the final book dedication, Orthopaedic Management in Cerebral Palsy.
His orthopaedic surgery training was at Duke University where he was a fellow of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. One can only imagine the spirited conversations he must have sparked with one of his attending surgeons, only a few years his senior, Leonard Goldner. His studies and medical training were interrupted by 2 stints in the Navy and included work at the US Naval Hospital in Oakland.
As a member AACPDM he spoke frequently to the mixed audience of therapists and orthopaedic surgeons that comprise our organization. These professionals were passionate in their belief that their particular specialty could be the salvation of the child with cerebral palsy. His take was different. He questioned childhoods spent jumping from surgery to surgery, therapy to therapy and intensive treatments that unchecked could easily fail to address the whole child. This was back in the 70’s when kids frequently had a surgery a year and the pressure for extensive physical therapy was mind boggling by our current standards of best practices. He looked for middle ground incorporating overall goals with balance and good sense. He sought to optimize the child’s overall experience so there was time for childhood. While he understood how important orthopaedics and therapy are, he paid heed to the importance of pharmacology, neurosurgery, prenatal and neonatal and preventative medicine in the management of cerebral palsy. This is why our academy was so appealing to him.
He was our President in 1976 and was on the AACPDM Board of Directors from 1970 through 1978. He spoke frequently and served the Academy in many other ways through his lifetime. He established pediatric orthopaedics at Stanford and served as Chairman of pediatric orthopaedic surgery at Stanford. His tradition has been ably carried on through Larry Rinsky, Jim Gamble, Jessica Rose and Scott Hoffinger, among many others who are present AACPDM leaders.
Bleck wanted to achieve realistic mobility with adaptive equipment like light weight wheelchairs, motorized chairs, chairs that stand the child up. He strove to reset the model so children were children and not medical models spending their childhood working toward unsustainable goals.
Bleck was also president of the American Orthopaedic Association, the Pediatric Orthopedic Study Group which merged into the Pediatric Orthopedic Society of North America and the Western Orthopaedic Association.
I met Gene Bleck as a young surgeon as I was starting my career and he was in the height of his. When I first visited him at Stanford in 1979 he proudly showed off the gait laboratory as well the Rehabilitation Engineering Center at the Children’s Hospital at Stanford. It is only recently that I realized how strongly the extended Bleck family is involved in engineering.
As chairman of pediatric orthopaedics at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, he mentored many young surgeons. He frequently hosted his residents for dinner on Christmas and through other critical days during their residency or fellowship. To know Gene was to know of his many mentees, as he relished bragging about their academic and personal accomplishments.
When he asked me to help him with a revision of his classic, Orthopaedic Management in Cerebral Palsy, I started to find out more about this delightful man. I laughed and chuckled through his writings that included many illustrative stories about his own children as well as many observations about dealing with cerebral palsy gleaned from visits through clinics in the US as well as around the world, particularly South America, Europe and Southeast Asia. The text is more enjoyable because of the flavor these stories add. Even when he was skeptical of their value, he felt the importance of the inclusion of the many therapy options that have gotten press so that clinicians and families reading the text could have a jump off point on reviewing these treatment modalities and reach their own conclusions. He appreciated that innovations outside of clinical medicine especially through bio-engineering and electronics could be a game changer for his patients with cerebral palsy.
Like many surgeons I had often used the previous editions to refresh the details of surgery. The latest edition was able to incorporate in more detail the philosophies, techniques and details of our contemporary greats in the world of cerebral palsy. These included Scott Mubarak, Jim Gage, Leon Root, Bill Oppenheim and Vincent Mosca to name a few who generously shared with us their clinical pearls and surgical techniques. The late pioneers of gait laboratories of Jacqueline Perry, Jurg Baumann and David Sutherland also influenced him.
When the book writing was done my husband and I travelled with Gene and his beloved wife, Anne, to Rome for a week’s instruction at the Jesuit Gregorian University. Beyond that, there were infrequent visits with him at his home in Hillsborough where he showed off his tomatoes and fruits that he enjoyed growing. Additionally he kept trim and maintained his good health by swimming daily. In May, I was fortunate to visit a last time while in California for the POSNA meeting. It was just around his birthday and his mind was as keen as ever.
As always, he spoke of his beloved children, John, Patrick, Jayne, Mary and the late Dan as well as his late wife of 63 years, Anne. He had vignettes about them including their family travels. More stories were included in his frequent correspondence with me. His emails to me also included tips on cooking and grilling, philosophy of life after a lengthy punch list on nailing down the exact facts for inclusion in the book. Some of the stories were included in the book which he affectionately called Das Buch.
I was fortunate to learn more about this man whose greatness extended way beyond the influence he had in medicine. He had perspective and lived a balanced and full life. He appreciated the many friends and colleagues that helped him make such a mark on the advancement of the care of children with cerebral palsy. He found peace in his writings, his readings, his family and his beliefs.
If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.