Each of WebMD’s 2016 Health Heroes has one thing in common: They saw the need for change, and used their passion, intellect, and creativity to bring it about. And behind each Health Hero was an inspiration — someone who motivated them to tackle a difficult health or medical challenge
For biomedical engineer Ed Damiano, the inspiration to develop a bionic pancreas came from his son, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 11 months old.
A teenage girl more than a thousand miles away motivated Trisha Prabhu to develop an anti-cyber-bullying app.
Actor Seth Rogen and his wife Lauren Miller Rogen founded an Alzheimer’s research and advocacy organization after Lauren’s mother was diagnosed with the disease at age 55.
And the terminally ill patients nurse Betty Ferrell cared for inspired her to become a palliative care activist.
Celebrities and health industry leaders gathered at The TimesCenter in New York City to honor these four WebMD Health Heroes, whose vision and determination in addressing these issues have helped to advance health care.
Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America, hosted the awards ceremony for the third time. “I always look forward to this wonderful event,” Roberts said.
After a welcome from WebMD CEO Steve Zatz, MD, awards were presented in four categories:
People’s Choice: Seth Rogen and Lauren Miller Rogen founded Hilarity for Charity in 2012, after her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The couple’s charity hosts an annual celebrity-studded variety show that uses humor to raise money and increase young people’s awareness of the disease.
“They had this vision for an event that was comedy driven, not maudlin,” said actor David Krumholtz of the CBS show Numb3rs, who presented the award. “Seth and Lauren have found a new and unique way to fight the deep sadness that accompanies Alzheimer’s disease. And they’ve done it in a way that reminds us all why we fight. Because life is all too short and the simple healing profundity of laughter should be a part of every day for everyone.”
Hilarity for Charity has raised more than $ 6.5 million for research and to support families affected by Alzheimer’s. “We’re truly honored to have helped as many people as we have, and we promise to keep doing it until we finally kick Alz in the Balls,” Rogen said in his acceptance speech.
Prodigy: High school junior Prabhu came up with the idea for the ReThink app after learning about 11-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, a Florida middle school student who was taunted so mercilessly online that she committed suicide. “I was heartbroken and distraught, and it was that moment that would inspire the revolutionary ReThink technology,” she told the audience.
As kids interact on social media, the ReThink app runs in the background. When the app senses a potentially offensive message, it sends out a warning, giving the teen a chance to “rethink” the post. Prabhu’s research found that her app helped kids reconsider — and avert a potential cyberbullying episode — 93% of the time. ReThink earned Prabhu the Global Finalist Award at the 2014 Google Science Fair and invitations to speak on TED stages around the world.
Prabhu, 16, says age shouldn’t be an impediment to innovation. “I think often kids hear the statement, ‘You are the future.’ I like to say, ‘You are the now.’ You’re never too young to make a difference and make an impact.”
She’s a junior at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois, but she’s already looking to the future. “Ten years from now, if I’m impacting lives and doing good, I think that I’ll be really happy with where I’m at, because it makes me happy knowing I can touch other people’s lives.”
Scientist: Damiano, PhD, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, set out to develop a bionic pancreas after his son David was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Damiano and his wife had to keep round-the-clock vigils to prevent their son’s blood sugar from spiking or dropping too low. His bionic pancreas automatically monitors blood sugar levels and delivers the hormones insulin or glucagon to keep it within a set range — just like a healthy pancreas would do.
“I wanted to repurpose and redirect my training as an engineer and applied mathematician to develop technology that could automatically manage David’s diabetes,” he said.
Damiano hopes to get the device to market within 2 ½ years. It could be a game changer for people with diabetes. “It’s going to be a really good solution until there’s a biological cure, and that is a long way away,” he said.
“The fact that Ed created a product that’s going to change lives … it’s amazing,” said Adam Savage, star of the Discovery Channel show, Mythbusters, who presented the award. “I really look forward to seeing the next thing he tackles.”
Advocate: Ferrell, RN, PhD, started her nursing career in the late 1970s, before palliative care existed. She soon became a pioneer in the field, recognizing that terminally ill patients need more than medicine and surgery to make them feel whole.
“The end of life is not just a sign of medical failure — it is a time when physical, psychological, social, and spiritual care is needed, and it is a sacred time,” she said in her acceptance speech.
As director of the Division of Nursing Research and Education at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, Duarte, CA, Ferrell’s mission has been to conduct research and educate health professionals to help them deliver more effective palliative care. “We have a lot of work to do to change the system and change public attitudes to really deliver this kind of care.”
The night kicked off with a performance by a cappella group Naturally 7. They’ve earned rave reviews for their signature sound, which mimics a band full of instruments. Musical duo A Great Big World closed out the event with a performance of their chart-topping single, “Say Something.”
Roberts encouraged the audience to nominate health heroes in their own lives, stressing that anyone can be an innovator. “Everyone, everywhere has the potential to be the next great WebMD Health Hero,” she said.