By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
PHILADELPHIA – Once he relinquished his dream of playing in the NBA, Steven Houser began studying to become a doctor. He was in his second year of medical school at Temple University when he received an unusual call from his mom.
“You’ve got to come home,” she said.
Home was on the other side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia, just outside the town of Camden, New Jersey. He visited often enough that she wasn’t merely seeking face time. Steven was needed immediately because his dad – his lifelong coach, mentor and hero – was gravely ill.
All Ruth Houser knew was that Robert “Bob” Houser was having trouble breathing. Soon, more details emerged.
It turns out that the day Bob reluctantly called in sick five years ago, he’d actually suffered a heart attack. A big one. It left him with a ballooned area inside his heart called a ventricular aneurysm. His heart also wasn’t efficiently pumping blood to the rest of his body; he was in heart failure.
“I was in my infancy of understanding how the heart works,” Steven Houser said recently. “But I knew we had a very, very, very bad situation.”
Bob Houser died a year and a half later, at 51. His legacy, however, is still going strong.
Bob’s illness steered Steven from an interest in neurology to a passion for cardiology research. He wanted to understand what happened to his dad. And he wanted to find answers that could save lives and provide families with the thing he wanted most: more time with his dad.
Decades later, Houser’s lab has deepened the understanding of the heart and continues to do important work. He’s trained hundreds of students who’ve done their own research or become clinicians, directly saving and improving lives. And, starting July 1, he’ll take yet another important step in shaping the fight against cardiovascular diseases and stroke by becoming president of the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association.
Bob Houser grew up in Camden, then went off to World War II. He served as a radioman in the Navy, seeing combat in the Pacific. All he’d ever say about it was, “We were doing our jobs.”
He returned home hoping to have a family and be a good provider. He married Ruth and they had two children: a daughter, Kathleen; then a son, Steven. Along the way, Bob worked his way up at Western Electric.
Ruth gave up a basketball scholarship to Temple to marry Bob and stay at home. While the kids were growing up, she emphasized education. As Kathleen and Steven neared college, Ruth finally went off for her own higher learning.
“Dad didn’t make enough money to send my sister and me to college, so mom went to a teacher’s college so she could get a job to help pay for our tuition,” Steven Houser said. “She became a middle-school math teacher for the next 28 years of her life.”
Bob Houser dreamed of his son becoming a big-league third baseman. While baseball was probably Steven’s best sport, he loved basketball.
But when the coach at Penn – then a national power – projected little to no playing time if he made the team, Steven Houser went to Eastern Baptist College and played all four years.
Steven and Bob bonded through sports. If Bob wasn’t hitting him grounders or helping with his jump shot, they were probably fishing on a lake or watching a ballgame on television. (Bob desperately wanted Steven to learn Morse code. He never got past S.O.S.)
Bob also coached many of Steven’s teams. In one of the Little League team photos that Steven still has, you can clearly see something poking out of Bob’s shirt pocket: a pack of Marlboros.
Bob came home from the war with a three pack per day smoking habit. However much that contributed to his heart disease is unknown. But it surely didn’t help.
“I don’t remember my dad without a cigarette,” Steven said. “I remember when we would travel in the summer, Mom would light his cigarettes for him.”
By his third year at Eastern Baptist – which is now Eastern University – Houser had dabbled in law and religion. Then he took a yearlong physiology course with lots of lab work.
“We did what today would be called comparative anatomy,” he said. “We studied worms and frogs, looking at their hearts and neuromuscular systems. I developed an interest in memory – how do we really remember things and make meaning out of things?”
He entered a Ph.D. program at Temple and spent much of his first two years doing rounds with neurologists. He became so involved in a study of the synapses in a lobster’s skeletal muscles that he went to the docks to buy fresh lobsters.
Then his mom called.
Bob’s hospital room became Steven’s classroom.
Every time doctors brought up something new, or he observed something he didn’t understand, Steven took his questions to the medical school library. Today, this would be done bedside using a smartphone. Back then, it required hours of intense effort.
Surgeries were deemed too risky and the right kinds of medicines didn’t exist. Bob was stuck, which was perhaps the most frustrating thing.
“My dad and I had long talks about this over his last couple of months,” Steven said. “He knew he was going to die.”
After the inevitable happened, Steven was left with two unanswered questions:
- What caused the heart to weaken?
- What underlying electric issues lead to sudden death?
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said.
Dr. Houser remained at Temple and eventually earned his own lab. Over his first 20 years there, he primarily studied weakened hearts.
He explains his research area using the analogy of a group of people pulling a heavy sled up a snowy hill.
A cardiac event such as a heart attack kills cells within the heart, which is akin to removing some of the sled-pullers. As a result, there’s more work to be done by those who remained.
For many years, the aim was to make the survivors stronger. Medicines were created to do this. While it helped in the short term, it ultimately backfired. The increased workload eventually wore out those survivors.
Then Houser had what he calls his “scientific epiphany.”
Maybe the problem had nothing to do with how strong or weak the surviving sled-pullers were. Maybe it was simply the fact there weren’t enough of them.
This led to a new problem. While you can recruit more people to pull a sled, nobody has figured out how to create more cells in a heart.
So, for the past 10 years, Houser and his team have been exploring that realm.
His group is in the final stages of an $11.6 million, five-year grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to develop new approaches to prevent, slow or reverse damage after a heart attack.
The NHLBI is part of the federal government’s National Institutes of Health. The NIH’s support of his current endeavor is quite contrary to what happened early in his career.
When Houser applied for a study about the changes in the heart’s electric system that triggered irregular heartbeats, the NIH said no. Twice. Then a third time. In fact, his score went down each time.
Without changing a word, he submitted his plan to the AHA. Bingo!
Appreciative for this opportunity, Houser became engaged with the organization. He liked what he found and became more active as a volunteer.
Soon he began working his way up the AHA volunteer hierarchy, holding numerous roles in and around Philadelphia before moving to the national level. He served as chair of the Basic Cardiovascular Sciences Council and as chair of the prestigious Research Committee. He spent the last year as president-elect, learning the ropes from President Mark Creager.
Houser will become the 80th president of the AHA, taking on the highest role for a science volunteer in the nation’s oldest and largest cardiovascular health organization.
The research plank makes sense, seeing as he’s been employed by Temple University his entire career. His current titles there include Senior Association Dean of Research; Vera J. Goodfriend Endowed Chair, Cardiovascular Research; Chair and Professor in Physiology; Director of the Cardiovascular Research Center; and professor of medicine.
The prevention component goes back to his dad, and the unanswerable question of how things might have turned out differently.
Steven Houser believes his dad probably also had high blood pressure. It’s quite possible Bob never even had his blood pressure checked. Diet and exercise? Well, Bob was active during Steven’s playing days, but not so much after. And he followed the typical starchy, buttery, meaty diet that many Americans did back then.
“Since we still don’t have good ways to repair hearts, the real way to treat ischemic heart disease is to not have it in the first place,” Dr. Houser said.
The NBA’s loss was a big gain for the rec-league teams Houser played for into his 50s. Athletics remains a big part of his life, from doing something fitness-oriented each day to rooting for his local college hoops teams and the NFL’s Eagles.
Houser also is quite competitive on the golf course. Truth be told, he’s competitive in everything, including fishing with his youngest daughter, Emily.
Temple is so deeply rooted in Houser’s life that he met his wife Beth Bailey on campus. In fact, they first got to know each other when she was a post-doctoral candidate in his lab.
They married 24 years ago and have published papers together. She is the chair of the biology department at Ursinus College, a liberal arts school in the Philadelphia area.
Their oldest daughter, Ellie, graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in biology/environmental science and is doing postgraduate work. Emily is a math major at Dickinson College. Both were competitive swimmers in their youth, and Houser coached Emily in basketball.
The family loves hiking together, especially around the Acadia National Park. It’s not far from a home they own in Ellsworth, Maine.
Because it’s right near Green Lake, a spot where Steven and Bob Houser made some great memories together.