BY AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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When Dr. Gary Gibbons spoke to thousands earlier this month at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting, his focus was on the promise of precision medicine. But in a quiet corner at the Orlando convention center, he wanted to talk about high blood pressure, a condition that puts the squeeze on a billion people worldwide and was at the center of a landmark study presented at the meeting.

High blood pressure can lead to heart attack, stroke, heart failure or kidney disease.

“Yet we know how to control it,” said Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “There are so many lives we could save if people were aware they have it and aware that we have treatments that can help.”

Gibbons’ interest in helping people started as a young boy when he thought he’d be a doctor, just like the African-American primary care physician who took care of him. Today, he heads the third-largest institute at the National Institutes of Health, with an annual budget of more than $3 billion and over 900 federal employees.

He was the youngest of three children, growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia during a period of racial turmoil. As a third-grader in the 1960s, Gibbons rode the bus “across the train tracks” from his largely African-American neighborhood to a school located in a predominately white, Jewish neighborhood, experiencing desegregation, expanding his appreciation for different kinds of people.

“It was actually good at that time of innocence that we didn’t know what has happening across the country,” he said. “We were just kids.” Gibbons went to Episcopal Academy, a private high school that sought talented minority students. He graduated in 1974.

“It gave me an opportunity to measure myself at an elite school, and that really is what opened the door for me to contemplate going to an Ivy League school like Princeton,” Gibbons said.

At the time, minorities clustered together more. There was, he said, “a sense of otherness. When I was in elementary school, there was a childhood innocence about the lack of barriers, but when I was college-age, my classmates didn’t take me home for the holidays. It just didn’t happen. The experience of my kids has been totally different, but at that time, there was still a sense of barrier.”

Gibbons attended Harvard Medical School and completed his residency and cardiology fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He was especially interested in diseases that disproportionately affect African-Americans, asking a professor why African-Americans have higher rates of high blood pressure and more complications from the disease.

“Dr. Clifford Barger was a great scientist and probably a greater human being. He invited me to his laboratory to answer the questions myself,” Gibbons said. “That is where I first became enamored with research and the curiosity of scientific investigation.”

He combined that curiosity with his desire to help others, similar to his mom, Vivian Johnson Gibbons. She grew up in Camden, New Jersey, and was orphaned as a teenager during the Great Depression.

“She was a young African-American girl who was taken in by an African-American family of 13. Despite all that, she emerged as valedictorian of her high school class,” Gibbons said. “Someone in the audience was impressed enough to help her pay for college, and she worked as a domestic to pay for her room and board.”

Vivian Gibbons became a teacher who helped found a church and a nursery school, and worked on community grants to establish a halfway house for unwed teens. At one point she took in a homeless student.

“She was very much someone who believed that we are our neighbor’s keeper,” Gibbons said.

Years later, Gibbons found that he too could give back, but in different ways. He founded the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine in 1999, one of the first heart-health institutes of its kind at a historically minority school.

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Not everyone thought starting the institute from scratch — directing NIH-funded research in the fields of vascular biology, genomic medicine and the pathogenesis of vascular diseases — was such a good idea.

“A lot of advisors thought I was crazy, insane,” Gibbons said. But he’s proud of the legacy he left that focused the science on health disparities.

“This was an opportunity to do something that was bigger than myself that could make a difference, particularly for an African-American college that started literally out of slavery. This was a young medical school starting in that same mission — serving the underserved,” said Gibbons, who became the director of NHLBI in 2012.

The NHLBI sponsored the new high blood pressure trial that found more aggressive treatment of high blood pressure can save lives.

High blood pressure can be especially devastating for African-Americans, affecting more than 40 percent of the population. It also develops earlier in life among African-Americans than whites and is usually more severe.

“Screen it and measure it, and if it’s elevated, treat it,” Gibbons said.

Photo by AHA/Matt Herp