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Obituary of Dr. Abdullah M. Nassief: Washington University expert on strokes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 9, 2009 - On Tuesday morning, Dr. Abdullah M. Nassief, nationally regarded expert on stroke, and Dr. Richard Bach, director of the Cardiac Critical Care Unit at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, were on KWMU discussing prevention and treatment of heart attacks and strokes. Tuesday evening, Feb. 3, just hours after the interview, Dr. Nassief died of coronary artery disease while playing soccer with medical students at Heman Park in University City. He was 43.

Dr. Nassief, a prodigious writer as well as speaker on the subject of strokes, played a central role in developing Washington University Medical Center into one of the premier stroke centers in the country. He was also the driving force behind the team that led to Barnes-Jewish Hospital being named a Primary Stroke Center, the first subspecialty accreditation in any area of medicine the hospital had received.

His official titles were long and descriptive of his work. He was associate professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and co-director of the Cerebrovascular Disease Section in the Department of Neurology at the School of Medicine. He was also director of the Neurology Residency Program at the School of Medicine and of the Clinical Stroke Center and of Acute Rehabilitation Services at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Dr. Jin-Moo Lee, associate professor of neurology and director of the Cerebrovascular Disease Section in the Department of Neurology at Washington University, noted that Dr. Naissief went beyond radio to community outreach, going into local hospitals to give talks about stroke.

“Abdul was a very special person who touched many hearts” said Dr. Lee. “He treated patients in rural areas. Even when he visited his in-laws in Nebraska, people would come to him because they wanted his care.”

In a statement, Dr. Mark Goldberg, professor of neurology, said that he helped to train Dr. Nassief when he came to the School of Medicine as a fellow. “But lately he trained me,” he said. “He was a stroke expert for the whole region and was the person people turned to with difficult questions about stroke.”

He was also the person Brenda McGeehan turned to for treatment of her migraine headaches, another vascular illness. McGeehan, 51, had been Dr. Nassief’s patient since 2002. “When you went for an appointment, he would come out himself and call you into his office,” McGeehan said. “And he never hurried you; he listened to absolutely everything you had to say.

“Once during a visit, I told him I had kidney stones. About two days later, Dr. Nassief called me while he was away at a conference in Chicago to say that he’d been thinking about my problem, had researched it, and had brainstormed about it with other doctors. I couldn’t believe he was calling me while he was out of town - and he had solved the problem!”

Dr. Nassief’s treatments of McGeehan’s migraines had also been effective. “I hadn’t seen him in a year because my migraines had gotten better. I was scheduled to see him Friday (Feb. 6),” McGeehan said, her voice trailing off in tears. “I thought a lot of Dr. Nassief; I want his family to know that.”

Dr. Nassief earned a medical degree in 1989 at King Saud University College of Medicine in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was born. He completed residencies at King Fahad Hospital in Riyadh and at the University of Vermont after moving to the United States in 1994. He later completed two years of fellowship training in cerebrovascular disease at Washington University School of Medicine before joining the faculty in 2000.

His students honored him with clinical teaching awards in 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2005. Other awards he received included the Sven Eliasson Award for Teaching Excellence in the Department of Neurology and Washington University School of Medicine’s newly instituted Distinguished Clinical Teacher of the Year Award in 2008. Dr. Nassief also received the Northern New England Neurological Society Award for Best Presentation in 1995 and 1996, and was named chief resident in the Department of Neurology at the University of Vermont Medical School in 1998.

During his last media interview, Dr. Nassief was still performing his life’s mission: promoting good health through education.

“We know from studies, and it has been proven conclusively, that when you educate the population about stroke and myocardial infarction (heart attack),” Dr. Nassief said, “you see the number of these people coming to the emergency room increase and their chances of recovery are better.

“Prevention is much more important than anything else we do.”

His colleague and interview partner, Dr. Bach, agreed: “We are touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of prevention. But it (heart attack) still remains the leading killer.”

Dr. Nassief worked until his final day to help chip away at the iceberg.

Among Dr. Nassief’s survivors are his wife, Sheri, and two young sons, Fahris, 8, and Sammy, 5, of Fairview Heights, and his parents, Mohammed and Sameera Nassief, of Pabuk, Saudi Arabia.

A memorial service will be held in St. Louis at a later date.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.