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A Personal Mission

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, March 13, 2012
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This article appears in the March 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Brien Smith, MD, chief of neurology at Spectrum Health Medical Group in Grand Rapids, MI, was a teenager when he suffered an epileptic seizure that was caused by a brain tumor. Smith's personal experience with epilepsy played a big role in his decision to specialize in epileptology, and has given him a firsthand perspective and empathy for patients suffering from the disorder. Smith hasn't had a seizure since undergoing a surgical intervention more than 20 years ago. Last spring he was named chairman of the Epilepsy Foundation.

On specializing in neurology-epileptology: When I did my rotations in medical school to try to determine what my interests were, I enjoyed surgery and emergency medicine, but I had to look at the big picture: "Okay, what if I spend years of training and if I need to get into something where I am in the operating room or making a pivotal decision; would I potentially run into a problem where let's say I have a seizure and something goes wrong and there goes my career?" It's not that neurology doesn't make important decisions. But it typically follows a slower course in how you evaluate and move ahead.

On his leadership role with the Epilepsy Foundation: There are a couple of things that we are trying to do. One is some reorganization of our national foundation to make the national and affiliates work better so we can reach everybody out there in the country who has epilepsy.

The second thing is trying to coordinate the research activities of the nonprofits and professional organizations that have worked independently. It would work better if we got those groups to work in tandem.

On his personal mission: I am in a unique position where I have experienced the problem. I am involved every day treating these patients and I see every day—despite how far we have come from a technological standpoint—that the basic treatment for people with epilepsy has been quite limited in a lot of places in our country. That is not right. We need to educate and move forward. People in my position who have that ability to see things from both perspectives have to be the ones who take on the call.

Reprint HLR0312-12


This article appears in the March 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.


John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.