A military veteran transforms lives destroyed by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A high school student invents a device to keep Alzheimer’s patients safe.
A forensic pathologist makes a discovery that changes how professional football is played.
And an award-winning actress works to end the discrimination and stigma surrounding mental illness.
Celebrities and health industry leaders gathered at The Times Center in New York to honor these four WebMD Health Heroes, whose perseverance, dedication, and compassion is changing the face of health care.
Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America, said she was “thrilled” to be hosting WebMD’s Health Hero Awards for a second year. This year’s heroes “show the simple, magnificent power of the human spirit,” Roberts said. “I know their stories are going to inspire you.”
After a welcome from CEO David Schlanger, WebMD presented awards in four categories: Advocate, Prodigy, Scientist, and People’s Choice. This year, each of the honorees improved the lives of people with brain disorders.
The People’s Choice recipient was award-winning actor and activist Glenn Close. Through her nonprofit Bring Change 2 Mind, Close works to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness. “Glenn has gone way out on a limb to bring mental health into focus,” said her sister, Jessie Close. Jessie’s battle with bipolar disorder inspired Close to co-found the organization.
“There are so many people dealing with a mental health issue,” Glenn Close said. She called mental illness “the big unspoken issue” people still don’t feel comfortable talking about, as they do cancer and other chronic diseases. “I think the more focus, the more we have a grassroots voice that demands from the people we put in Washington to help with this issue, the more people’s lives we can save.”
Former Army soldier Ronald “Jake” Clark received the Advocate Award for his Save A Warrior program. Started in 2012, the program has helped hundreds of veterans and first responders recover from combat stress.
In his acceptance speech, Clark cited an epidemic of PTSD-related suicide in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that at least 22 veterans take their own lives every day. “We’re talking about young warriors in their mid to late 20s, early 30s whose lives have just started who are being wiped out,” he said. “You’re looking at a national treasure just being squandered if we allow hundreds of thousands of warriors to end their lives over the coming decades.”
Forensic pathologist Bennet I. Omalu, MD, received the Scientist Award. The Nigerian-born doctor discovered dramatic changes in the brains of football players that affect their thinking ability and behavior, a condition he termed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). His research led to stricter NFL safety rules regarding concussions and changed the way the game is played.
Recognition was a long time coming. The NFL at first tried to discredit Omalu’s work. “In recognizing me today, WebMD, you have looked my way when everyone looked away; you have lifted me up when everyone put me down. For this I am profoundly grateful,” he said. He called the event “a celebratory night” for players like Pittsburgh Steelers legend Mike Webster, in whose brain Omalu first discovered CTE. “They have all been vindicated,” he said.
Kenneth Shinozuka, winner of the Prodigy Award, invented a wearable pressure sensor and smartphone app to combat wandering, a common problem among people with Alzheimer’s. He conducted his own studies on his grandfather, who has the disease, and at several senior care facilities in California. And he did all this while still a teenager.
Actor Seth Rogen presented the award to Shinozuka. “It’s amazing,” Rogen said. “It’s so far beyond what I was doing when I was 17, productivity wise. I was writing genital jokes.” Rogen and his wife, Lauren Miller Rogen, founded Hilarity for Charity to inspire young people into Alzheimer’s advocacy. He said he hopes Shinozuka’s accomplishment will inspire other young people to follow a similar path.
Shinozuka called the experience “surreal.” “I have to pinch myself,” he said. Yet he resisted the title “hero,” calling the real heroes the 47.5 million people worldwide who live with Alzheimer’s. He also praised the caregivers like his aunt, “who sacrifice their well-being, devote their lives to this cause, to caring for these patients.” He hopes to one day find a cure for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Throughout the night, guests were treated to performances by critically acclaimed musical acts. The Broadway Boys kicked off the show with their rendition of the Alesso song, “Heroes.” Singer-songwriter Amos Lee, who’s toured with music legends like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, performed three of his biggest hits: “Violin,” “Windows Are Rolled Down,” and “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight.”
Actress Fran Drescher rounded out the evening. She joked that, thanks to the 2 years it took her to get diagnosed with uterine cancer, “I know a thing or two about doctors, and not in the way my mother always hoped.” The vision of her organization, Cancer Schmancer, is to promote early detection, “So that everyone will be diagnosed in stage I, when it’s most curable.”
Roberts reminded the audience that each of the Health Heroes faced a crossroads in life when they were moved to invent, create, and enact change to make life better for others. “I hope their stories inspire each of us to engage our own inner hero to act,” Roberts said.