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Spring/Summer 2012

Walking on Water

Date: May 14, 2012

White’s leadership has led to the creation of 20 centers around the world dedicated to managing Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome.
White’s leadership has led to the creation of 20 centers around the world dedicated to managing Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome.

Sir William Osler was among the first to focus attention on a rare genetic disorder that can lead to the development of abnormally formed, potentially life-threatening blood vessels. Today, interventional radiologist Robert I. White Jr. (HS, 1963-70; faculty, radiology, 1971-88) is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on the condition—and his extraordinary success in treating patients with it prompted more than a dozen of them to fund Yale University’s new Robert I. White Jr., MD Professorship in Interventional Radiology, created last fall. It is only the third such chair in the country.

The clinical name for the condition White knows so well is hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, but it is also called Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome—thanks to a 1901 paper Osler published in the Bulletin of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. (Other papers by Frederick Parks Weber and Henri Rendu earned them a share of its moniker.) Although the symptoms of HHT include frequent but essentially benign nosebleeds in children, its vascular malformations in the liver, lungs, brain, or other organs can have a far graver impact, causing gastrointestinal bleeding, seizures or otherwise unexplained small strokes, and heart failure.

White’s leadership in combating the Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome has led to the creation of some 20 centers around the world dedicated to helping patients manage the condition; and his warm, compassionate, essentially around-the-clock availability to the hundreds of families he has treated for it has made him their idol. One Richmond, Va., woman whose family contributed to the chair told a writer for Yale that she thinks of White as “almost walking on water.” His attentiveness to those relatives who inherited the condition “literally has saved multiple lives in our family,” she said.

White, who today serves as director of the Yale Vascular Malformation Center, was elected to the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars in 2007. The professor of diagnostic radiology is known as an innovator, scholar, teacher, and visionary—not only in radiology but in cardiology as well. He is credited with developing four new techniques in interventional radiology and was part of a team of Hopkins physicians who performed the first pulmonary valvuloplasty, a procedure to widen a stiff or narrowed heart valve. He also has pioneered other interventional techniques to treat malformations of the pulmonary artery.

White says that he hopes creation of the professorship will propel his area of expertise into the limelight. “I want to see this specialty become important in people’s minds, and having this chair in interventional radiology will really reflect that.”  Neil A. Grauer