Celebrities and health industry notables packed The Times Center in New York City to honor six people whose innovation and dedication have helped people around the world lead healthier lives. WebMD’s first annual Health Hero Awards Gala paid tribute to the activists, visionaries, and pioneers in healthcare.
After a welcome from WebMD CEO David Schlanger, host Robin Roberts took the stage to a standing ovation.
“You make it worth staying up past my bedtime!” she told the packed audience.
The Good Morning America co-anchor recently went through her own very public journey with breast cancer and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). She said she understands the importance of health heroes like the doctors and nurses who saved her life, and the evening’s six honorees. “We are so free in this society to label somebody a hero. These people truly are.”
WebMD presented Health Hero awards in six categories—Activist, Scientist, Prodigy, Philanthropist, People’s Choice, and Hall of Fame. Each of the winners was chosen because of his or her extraordinary contribution to the cause of better health through advocacy, research, or philanthropy.
Robin presented the biggest tribute of the night—the Hall of Fame award—to Michael J. Fox, for his dedication to the cause of Parkinson’s disease advocacy and research.
“Not only has he raised awareness but he’s raised almost half a billion dollars for Parkinson’s research,” Roberts told WebMD.
In a taped interview with Roberts, Fox was reticent about being called a “hero.”
“At a time when people are putting their lives on the line particularly for country and for freedom—those are heroes,” Fox said. He said he shared the award “with my fellow patients, and with the countless researchers who’ve jumped on board and are dedicating their careers to that mission.”
A star-studded lineup was on hand to present the rest of the night’s awards—American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, celebrity chef Rocco Dispirito, TV personality Beth Stern, and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Susie Essman. Grammy-nominated artist, Gavin DeGraw entertained the crowd, performing three of his hits —“Chariot,” “Follow Through,” and “Soldier.”
The evening’s Philanthropist award went to NBC host Carson Daly, who collaborated with nonprofit group KidsGardening.org to transform a concrete playground in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, into a teaching garden for schoolchildren.
“I think he’s deserving because seeing him in action at the school with the kids was phenomenal,” said KidsGardening.org COO, Jennifer Tedeschi who accepted the award on Daly’s behalf. “You could tell he was really passionate about it as a father himself.”
Activist award recipient Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, has furthered the cause of children’s mental health care with his nonprofit organization, Child Mind Institute. Koplewicz said he was thrilled to get the award—and to get it from presenter Beth Stern. “How awesome! It looks like an Oscar and it’s Howard Stern’s wife,” he exclaimed.
On a more serious note, he thanked WebMD for recognizing the cause of children’s mental health care. “This recognition really helps 15 million kids who suffer from child and adolescent psychiatric disorders. These are kids who are forgotten,” he said. “The fact that WebMD is paying attention to it makes it more real, makes people recognize that it’s common and treatable, and that breaks down stigma.”
American Idol winner Jordin Sparks felt a special affinity with Frank Papay, MD, a Cleveland Clinic plastic surgeon who pioneered a new surgical technique to treat painful cluster and migraine headaches.
“I’ve suffered from the pain of migraines. I know I speak for countless other migraine sufferers when I say how grateful we are for Dr. Papay’s findings,” she said before presenting him with the Scientist award. Papay said he doesn’t consider himself a hero. “I think the team that I work with and the patients that we deal with … those are the heroes.”
The evening’s youngest honoree, Zarin Ibnat Rahman, was just 16 when she conducted a groundbreaking study of teens’ screen time two years ago. Her research earned Rahman top honors at a national science competition. Winning the Prodigy award is “surreal” and “humbling,” she said.
“I keep thinking about how amazing it is for me to be at this age and already giving back to people. I think that’s really the most wonderful part of this entire experience,” she said. Rahman challenged her peers to make their own mark on the world. Quoting Mahatma Ghandi, she said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Each year, WebMD asks readers to choose the one celebrity who most embodies the qualities of a true “Health Hero.” This year’s People’s Choice winner is Emmy Award-winning TV host, entrepreneur, and best-selling author Martha Stewart. She has led the charge for better health care for older adults by opening the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
“I think the thing Martha does better than anyone else is inspire people,” says Brent Ridge, MD, who helped Stewart create the Center. “Honestly, there’s nothing sexy about aging, there’s nothing sexy about caregiving. But presenting Martha with something as important as the People’s Choice Award makes me think that people are beginning to realize how important these issues are and appreciate what Martha is doing.”
Stewart said she was “honored to receive this award.” She said that as the population ages — a phenomenon she describes as the “silver tsunami”— it’s critical to prepare for the future. “It is dedicated to helping people make the most of those years – by living longer, healthier, and more productively,” she said. “I myself intend to stick around for a long time. I have a lot to do!”