St. Louis native Michael R. DeBaun, a renowned physician at Children’s Hospital St. Louis, was recently named the first Ferring Family Chair in Pediatric Cancer and Related Disorders at Washington University School of Medicine.
Lee Fetter, president of St. Louis Children’s Hospital, presented DeBaun with a medallion May 22 at his inauguration ceremony at the Eric P. Newman Center, calling it the “pinnacle of professional achievement in the academic world.”
An endowed chair is a university’s highest academic honor for faculty.
“Dr. Debaun’s entire practice of medicine is about family,” said Alison Ferring, one of the benefactors of the John and Alison Ferring Endowed Chair.
“The hospital family, his family, his student scholars program family and, most importantly, his patient family.”
Alan L. Schwartz, physician-in-chief and chairman of pediatrics at Saint Louis Children’s Hospital, and professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine, described, “Education, research, clinical care and advocacy in the community—he is the quadruple threat...His work is not done,” Schwartz said of DeBaun, whom he has mentored for 21 years. “He is pushing the new frontiers in understanding sickle cell disease and its complications and developing strategies to overcome them. He is certainly the world’s expert on silent strokes and sickle cell disease.”
‘The posture of my peers’
The top honor bestowed upon DeBaun crowns a fascinating career of a man who, as a youngster, made some typical mistakes.
“Being studious was perceived as being weak—not cool,” DeBaun said.
“I wanted to fit in. I assumed the posture of my peers, although I had to assume the posture of my home when I was home.”
He even went as far as borrowing an extra set of books to keep at home just so he wouldn’t be caught carrying books.
“I was being pulled in a direction of pursuing the priorities of street life, the priorities of not studying and finding out how many ways you can get into trouble,” he said.
It was a Saint Louis University Upward Bound program that put DeBaun on the right track.
“That was the first time I had been around a large number of African-American peers, boys who were as competitive on the basketball court and on the field as they were in the classroom,” DeBaun said.
“I was home. It reinforced the principles I had at home and my own personal expectations.”
DeBaun said he made the decision to transfer to Saint Louis University High School, to be in that environment where academics were extremely competitive. It affirmed the hopes and values fostered by his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
“They had some level of confidence that I would gravitate to put myself in a more favorable position to achieve my academic goals,” DeBaun said.
After SLUH, DeBaun went on to Howard University where he pledged Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and earned a bachelor of science in chemistry, a master of science in health services research and M.D degrees from Stanford University School of Medicine and a master’s in public health in epidemiology from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health followed.
He has advice for young people who find they face a similar choice between doing what is popular and doing what is right.
“Never give up,” DeBaun said. “Pursue your dream. When you pursue your dream with passion, regardless of the odds and the external influences that appear to move you away from what you are passionate about, your internal strength will see you through.”
DeBaun himself certainly has succeeded in living his dreams.
“Dr. DeBaun once said to John and me, one time when he was feeling particularly overloaded, that he was living his dream,” Ferring said. “When your life and life’s work exceeds your expectations, there is never one more surprised than the person whose life it is.”
Drive for blood
DeBaun remains, in important respects, a man of multiple worlds.
“He has been unusual in being able to both optimize what he can learn from and give back to each of the communities from which he thrives,” Schwartz said. “What he takes and what he learns and what he absorbs from the Children’s Hospital community is different from what he absorbs from the black community and different from what he absorbs from the School of Medicine, and each of those interactions with the communities creates part of the whole of what makes him unique.”
DeBaun is responsible for the development of Charles Drew Blood Drives in support of the American Red Cross. Drew was an African-American physician who developed the blood and plasma storage system that revolutionized blood replacement in the medical profession. Drew also established the American Red Cross blood bank, of which he was the first director, and he organized the world’s first blood drive.
“When he learned there was a lack of African-American blood donors in St. Louis, DeBaun worked with the Red Cross, the churches and universities to address that problem,” said Dr. F. Sessions Cole, director of newborn medicine and chief medical officer at Saint Louis Children’s Hospital.
“He makes sure that the deficits that can be addressed on an institutional level are addressed.”
As a result of his work with area churches, Sickle Cell Sabbath blood drives are held annually at several St. Louis-area congregations. Participating churches include Christ Our Redeemer AME Church, Greater St. Mark Family Church, St. Paul AME Church, Bethesda Temple Apostolic Church, St. Louis Christian Center and San Francisco Temple.
In addition, Charles Drew blood drives are now held throughout the nation.
The local annual Charles Drew commemorative blood drives will take place Saturday, June 14 at the Omega Center, located at 3900 Goodfellow in St. Louis, and at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center on 25th Street in East St. Louis, Ill.
Following his recent recognition as an endowed chair, DeBaun presented an overview of the research he is conducting on silent strokes in children with sickle cell anemia—his latest contribution to a medical field that, as Schwartz said, DeBaun has come to dominate.
The $18.5 million study is evaluating 1,800 children in the United States, Canada and Europe to determine the effectiveness of blood transfusion therapy to prevent silent strokes. DeBaun said the study should reveal “what risk factors may be associated with strokes and gray failure” (poor academic attainment).
DeBaun specializes in sickle cell disease, overgrowth cancer predisposition syndromes and public health issues. He is a professor of pediatrics, biostatistics and neurology, and directs the Sickle Cell Medical Treatment and Education Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. He is board-certified in pediatrics and pediatric hematology/oncology.
DeBaun also leads the Ferring Scholars Program, a three-year experiential pursuit at Washington University designed for high school students who are interested in careers in health or biomedical research. The program provides students with an in-depth and rigorous, mentored research experience throughout high school. Schwartz said DeBaun created the idea of involving high school students in biomedicine.
All of that—and now an endowed chair, too.
“It recognizes someone of international distinction,” Schwartz said of the Ferring Family Chair in Pediatric Cancer and Related Disorders.
“The endowment lives forever. So in this case, the Ferring Family and their generosity will not only support Michael DeBaun, but they will support the next Michael DeBaun and the next Michael DeBaun and the next Michael DeBaun.”