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John Abele receives Frederick S. Keller, MD, Philanthropy Award 

12-21-2020 10:16

SIR Today 2019

SIR Foundation presented the Frederick S. Keller, MD, Philanthropy Award to John Abele, FSIR, at the foundation’s annual Gala on Sunday. Mr. Abele started with Medi-Tech, a pioneer in IR, in 1969, co-founded Boston Scientific in 1979, and was a charter member of the foundation board. 

Before the Gala, Mr. Abele talked about his experiences with the IR community. Answers were edited for length and clarity. See Tuesday’s SIR Today for photos and details about the Gala.

How did you connect with SIR and interventional radiology?

I connected with SCVR, before the “I” became part of it, then SCVIR, then SIR. When it started, the society was really a collection of friends very interested in the intellectual side of radiology and the idea that if you could see things, you might be able to do things. They were quite innovative and very interesting. Everybody designed their own catheters in the late ’60s, early ’70s.

In the ’70s, the evolution of interventional radiology took, and it kept going, and today it’s a professionalized society that recognizes that change is accelerating and the ability to communicate worldwide also is increasing dramatically. It was wonderful opportunity to help lead that revolution in what’s broadly called less invasive medicine. It was the younger members just outside of that first group who were most aggressive about redefining this field. 

What made interventional radiology particularly special was that they were great developers. They had been used to surviving on their own, so to speak, with little help from outside organizations. They appreciated our partnership and were idea thinkers. I got to know a lot of people, meet their children and watch their children grow up and be leaders in the same field. 

Great minimally invasive therapists need clinical skill along with the unique skills of guiding catheters and understanding anatomy. You also have to understand how evolving tools enable you to do things that you couldn't have done a year ago. We lived in a field that was not only changing technologically, but socially, economically and politically. My role, and our corporate role, was to share the strategy of how do you create a new field and introduce it to the world. 

Why does philanthropy matter?

The concept of philanthropy is discomforting to me. It sort of implies that there are some who have and they give to those who haven't. I think my philanthropy has been a lot of sort of behind-the-scenes things. A person who wants to give support obviously provides financial support but also provides intellectual knowledge in areas that group doesn’t have. That was particularly true with SIR because early on they really needed a lot of guidance. Another part of philanthropy is introducing relationships, connecting people and providing access. They all sound the same but they actually all a little bit different. For me, and our company, that was enlightened self-interest.

What common traits do innovators have?

People who are very curious don't know they're innovating, they're just exploring, they're finding out. Innovator is the make-it-happen happen half of that equation, where invention is coming up with the idea that will solve the problem. Innovation is getting people to think and support and making sure there’s infrastructure. You get turned down a lot; that's where grit comes in. Grit is the most common attribute of the innovator.

There’s some overlap with entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurial means you have grit but also enough knowledge about a lot of topics to be able to connect them. You have entrepreneurial people in business, of course, but you also have it in the medical field—people who build a practice in which there was a lot of resistance are entrepreneurial. They know how to cross borders well, and they have the ability to hear the word “no” a lot and and smile when they do.

What does the future of IR look like to you?

I've been excited about the concept of inventory radiology and cancer for a long time. The number of people working on it is growing dramatically. And there’s ability to increase the differentiation skills of imaging—multiple modalities and integrating those modalities. And biotech and role of biology as it may apply to the radiology world, should be profound. 

AI, as controversial as it is, is going to get better and more powerful. Interventional radiologist will need new skills, but that will give the power to continually do more complicated therapies with better results, less trauma, less risk and lower cost. 

The strength of the society today has increased so much, but I like that it's still a bit entrepreneurial. Don't lose that. That's important.

During his interview before SIR 2019, John Abele, FSIR, also talked about some of the people he knew through his involvement with interventional radiology.

Gary Becker

Gary Becker was the first editor of the Journal of Interventional Radiology. He pulled a lot the strings to get people to professionalize what they were doing, and the quality of the articles improved and the respect they were getting from other readers improved. It was part of the maturation process for not just creating a new society but creating a new field and how that field related to other fields. It was fascinating to watch.

Bill Cook 

Bill Cook was the poster child for the Robert Frost poem where the path divides and, “I took the one less traveled by.” He was very much an independent thinker, and that was very attractive because he would challenge the common perceptions of just about everything. I admired for his support, and really creation, of the Dotter Institute in Oregon. He insisted that it not be just a radiology activity but spread across more fields that needed these skills, quite heretical in the well-siloed medical school world. That took a lot of guts. That’s innovation. Yes, you have technical innovation, but you also have to know how to do things. We supported a lot of projects in different ways, but the whole idea was to let those projects have the light of day and give them a little bit of that help early on and let it go further from there.

Charles Dotter

After a while, surgeons started to feel that this group of people was going to take their job away. Charles Dotter used to tell the surgeons that he was going to put them out of business, which was not the best political move. He was a wonderful character and gave people the concept that this could be more than just a tool for diagnosis.

Ernie Ring

Ernie Ring was a real leader in the birth of SIR. He suggested that the name not be interventional radiology, but image-guided therapy to be broader than what the word radiology describes. As a word, radiology is somewhat less relevant to what the society has become because they really have become image-guided therapists.

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