News from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science
“Three out of four of our children’s great-grandfathers committed suicide,” says Constance Buerger, “so we obviously have something in our family. But, until recently, we were only peripherally aware of mental illness.”
Buerger—“Connie” to friends—and her husband, Alan, founded Coventry First, the creator and leader of the secondary life insurance market. Parents of two grown sons, they’ve long lived on Philadelphia’s outskirts, dividing their time between family, philanthropy—they’re active, for example, in the city’s historic preservation—and their growing business.
But three years ago, their younger son, Grant, in his early 20s, was admitted to Hopkins and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And life, says Connie, became more complex. “We had no idea what a debilitating effect this illness could have on someone. And though Alan and I consider ourselves very positive people, that we can accomplish what we set our minds to, this was a very different challenge.
“I became single-minded of purpose to help Grant get better: OK. He has this. Let’s cure him. But that’s clearly not the way it goes. As we educated ourselves and talked with other families, that became obvious.”
Under the watchful eye of his two Hopkins doctors, Ray DePaulo and Jimmy Potash, Grant has made “tremendous progress,” Connie adds. Still, one of the agonizing aspects of bipolar disorder, the Buergers agree, is its unpredictability. “It sometimes seems like the bunny-hop,” says Connie, “two steps forward, one step back.”
It’s eliminating the step backward that has prompted the Buergers’ generous support of affective disorders research at Hopkins. “Their focus is both unusual and admirable,” says Potash, whose studies that tie genes to subtypes of bipolar disorder are helping his colleagues expose brain pathways in mental illness—the best route to therapies. “The Buergers really aim to make a difference. And they will.”