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Preeclampsia Foundation's Volunteer Medical Director Earns Esteemed Award

Last Updated on Monday, October 31, 2016

By Eleni Tsigas

When an awardee’s credentials begin with “He got his degree in psychology and taught 5th and 6th grade in Texas,” one doesn't naturally think “a giant in the field of preeclampsia.”

And yet, that is how Professor Dr. Mark Brown, President of the International Society for the Study of Hypertension in Pregnancy (ISSHP), began his introduction of Dr. Thomas R. Easterling this week in Sao Paulo, Brazil, as the winner of the Chesley Award. And nobody is more deserving or humble about it.

Dr. Easterling, Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist at the University of Washington, as well as – and especially – the Director of the Medical Advisory Board for the Preeclampsia Foundation, was named the 2016 winner of this prestigious award named after Leon Chesley, the father of 20th century understanding of preeclampsia.

As ISSHP’s President-Elect Dr. Laura Magee noted, “Tom is dedicated to the cause, to the women, and to dialogue, even when he is on the receiving end of some aggressive feedback. He does things for the right reasons, is not concerned about ‘being in the club’, and the Society could not have a more loyal supporter. We need more people like him.”

As one of the “women” to whom he is dedicated, I can say with certainty that there has never been a Preeclampsia Foundation event where he has not sought out and spent literally hours talking with preeclampsia survivors, answering their every question, and being sincerely sympathetic to their varied, sometimes tragic, experiences.

His diplomacy and professionalism in overseeing our Medical Advisory Board, and supervising our annual research grant review process is testament to just how dedicated he is to the cause, rising above equally remarkable research and clinical advancements that he personally has contributed to the field to ensure that the Preeclampsia Foundation attracts and rewards the best and brightest minds.

Many professionals who established their own place in the world of obstetrics and preeclampsia management credit Easterling’s tutelage. Dr. Larry Shields, a leader in California’s preeclampsia quality improvement initiative recalls, “Tom has been an advocate of tight blood pressure control for decades. He was often criticized for his views, but he still trained a large number of OB-GYNs and MFM specialists who carried his mantra forward. Not surprising, it appears he was right. Because of that strong commitment towards improving the outcomes of women with hypertension, countless numbers of expectant mothers have had safer pregnancies with healthier babies. I am honored to have him as a former mentor and friend.” 

In 2006, Easterling was recognized by the Preeclampsia Foundation with its Founder’s Award for his pivotal role in co-founding the organization with Anne Garrett, one of his patients. Garrett said, “He could have easily swayed me to just give him our money; he had saved my life and my son Gabe's life and I trusted him.” Although Garrett has not been involved in the Preeclampsia Foundation for a long time, she still remembers fondly his selfless decision to forego her donation to his personal research, opting instead to establish a “neutral” organization that would embrace multiple research perspectives and diverse thought leaders in the field of preeclampsia.

It was a decision that has continued to benefit the larger preeclampsia community, spawning new research and growing the field of committed investigators.

Easterling earned his medical degree from the University of North Carolina and completed his fellowship in Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of Washington, staying in the Pacific Northwest for the remainder of his clinical career. Not satisfied to just bring his expertise – and many of his former patients (present company included) would argue “highly successful approach” – to the women at his hospital, he embarked on a global health mission, working in India and Egypt to develop technology that would enable low-resource settings to overcome barriers to administering life-saving magnesium sulfate. He is leading a clinical trial in India to assess the efficacy of oral anti-hypertensive regimens for severe preeclampsia that would work in low-resource settings.

It was his determination to address the frightening state of global maternal health that motivated the Preeclampsia Foundation’s fundraising drive in 2010, enabling the launch of our global research initiative now called the EMPOWER Program, which includes funding partners ISSHP and Global Pregnancy Collaborative (CoLab).

Easterling’s other service includes holding several officer positions within the North American Society for the Study of Hypertension in Pregnancy, chairing ISSHP’s 10th World Congress in Seattle, and mentoring Dr. Shuchita Mundle, recipient of the Preeclampsia Foundation’s Partners in Progress (now EMPOWER) award for investigators in low- and middle-income countries.

He has authored over 100 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, including his oft-quoted work in hemodynamics and cardiac output in the management of preeclampsia.

The ISSHP’s Chesley Award is given to a member of the Society in recognition of her/his sustained and substantial contribution to research in preeclampsia, not only for her/his work but also for encouraging the work of others. The award winner is presented with $1,000 and the Chesley plaque. Other American luminaries who have received this prestigious international award include Marshall Lindheimer, Norman Gant, Jim Roberts, Baha Sibai, Fred Zuspan, and Ananth Karumanchi – each of whom should have their own Wikipedia pages, most of whom serve on the Preeclampsia Foundation’s Medical Advisory Board.

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