Fred D. Sheftell, MD

Fred D. Sheftell, MD

Your Spirit Will Live On Forever, Fred

Fred Sheftell, MD, FAHS, lost his valiant battle with cancer.

Fred loved what he did. He loved caring for his patients and working with his colleagues at the New England Center for Headache. He loved Headache Medicine and the American Headache Society. He was proud to have served as President of AHS from 2008 – 2010. But most of all he loved his wife Karen and children Jason and Lauren.

Throughout his busy life Fred was cited as one of the “Best Doctors in America”, one of the “Best Doctors in New York Metro Area” and listed in the “Who’s Who in Medicine and Healthcare.” Fred co-authored 11 books and 200 peer-reviewed articles on headache. He lectured throughout the world and appeared on numerous TV and Radio programs to speak on headache.

Fred chaired ACHE – AHS’s patient education organization – for over ten years and founded the World Headache Alliance – a patient group of the International Headache Society. Fred’s commitment to patient care and education impacted and inspired all who knew him.

We will miss him.

Fred’s family has requested that donations in his honor be made to the American Migraine Foundation.

A Celebration of His Life and Legacy

Remarks delivered at Fred’s funeral by Elizabeth Loder, MD, MPH, on behalf of Fred’s colleagues and friends in the international headache community

I am deeply honored to be asked by Karen, Fred’s beloved wife, and Jason and Lauren, his cherished children, to speak at this celebration of his life. I offer these remarks on behalf of Fred’s professional colleagues from around the world, many of whom are here in person and all of whom are here in spirit.

We are gathered together in testimony to Fred and his superbly well-lived life.

Fred was one of the truly great characters of the headache world, an incredibly vivid personality, and the mention of his name always brings a twinkle to the eye and a smile to the lips of any of his colleagues. He had an infectious enthusiasm and zest for his work, for the American Headache Society, his music, his family and his friends. He was a person of great charisma and energy and added a sparkle to any gathering – and he was definitely the person you wanted to sit next to at a boring meeting or lecture.

He was generous, magnanimous, and he gave freely of his time, especially to younger people in the field of headache. Fred was a clinical academic of the highest order, admired and respected by patients and colleagues all over the world. Here is the rundown of Fred’s career – and although you may not believe it, this is the abridged version!

Fred had a professional life before he entered the headache field. He was a major in the US Army and was decorated for his role in setting up the Army’s first substance abuse program. Already an impressive career, but Fred did not stop there.

Like all larger-than-life figures, Fred was driven to succeed and was an overachiever in his next career in the field of headache. He and Alan Rapoport were the founders of the New England Center for Headache, and achieved widespread fame for their work in the headache field. Fred lived through and was an integral part of many of the most stunning advances in headache medicine. He participated in the seminal clinical trials for many of the important headache drugs we have today, including the game-changing triptan medications.

Fred was on all the “best doctor” lists, and he co-authored many books and hundreds of peer-reviewed articles on headache. He lectured throughout the world and appeared on numerous television and radio programs speaking about headache. Perhaps you had the same experience that I repeatedly did, of turning on the radio only to hear Fred being interviewed, or being on an airplane and looking up at the TV screen where, lo-and-behold, there was Fred on a national television program.

Fred was the chair of the American Council on Headache Education, the patient education arm of the American Headache Society. The organization was on its deathbed when he took over, and he singlehandedly revitalized it and went on to found the World Headache Alliance, a consortium of headache patient groups from around the world.

Fred was the president of the American Headache Society from 2008-2010, a particularly turbulent time for the Society as it, like so many other organizations and individuals, was hit hard by the recession. Then, as I’ve seen him do many times over the years, Fred deftly chaired some tense board meetings with cheer and humor. He could defuse a difficult situation with a joke like no one else. His trademark response to people who tried to pick a fight or made outrageous comments was typically some version of “Now tell us how you REALLY feel about things!” That usually took the wind out of the offender’s sails.

As if all of this weren’t enough, Fred was a talented musician. He knew – and told wonderful stories about – an incredible number of great musicians like Carly Simon and Phil Ochs. Fred was the singer and songwriter for the first accredited musical continuing medical education program and his headache classics like “Migraine Blues” and “Triptan du Jour Waltz” can be found on You Tube. The program was favorably reviewed in the Journal of the American Medical Association and even recognized by the American Council for Continuing Medical Education with an award.

So many doctors who achieve Fred’s level of prominence leave their patients behind and consider patient care a sideline. In this, as in so many other things, Fred was different. Even at the very end of his life, Fred traveled every day to his office to see patients.

I was told that many of his patients are here today and that cards and letters from them have been pouring in. You know how lucky you were, don’t you? You had no finer and more devoted champion than Fred, who always brought it back to the level of the person with headache.

Fred was passionate about ending the stigma attached to migraine, which he called the Rodney Dangerfield of medical disorders. He was a fierce advocate on behalf of the most disadvantaged and marginalized headache patients, with a particularly notable and longstanding passion of his being soldiers who have experienced traumatic brain injury.

Fred’s professional and personal lives were intertwined. In the heady days of the triptans and the introduction of many other new treatments to the headache field, he and other thought leaders in the field constantly traveled together and truly did become family to each other. We knew each other’s spouses and watched each other’s children grow up.

In fact, the headache doctors of the Northeast got along so well that we formed a regional organization, the Headache Cooperative of New England, which has been a treasured part of our lives for many years. In some professional medical organizations, rivalries and professional jealousies take precedence over other considerations, but the Headache Cooperative of New England was different. We all looked forward to our twice-yearly meetings and often got together during summers as well.

A highlight of our annual Stowe, Vermont conference was always its ending, with Fred playing the guitar and singing while wine and cheese were served. One year he performed with a patient of his who played the harmonica beautifully. Another year he teamed up with Phil O’Carroll, and their rendition of Danny Boy did not leave a dry eye in the house. Even the wait staff was crying.

On the day after Fred’s death, my email was full of messages and outpourings of sorrow. Here are just a few of the many remarks from his colleagues:

Steve Scrivani: I greatly appreciated all that he did for me…and he did it with pleasure. Two years ago, I gave him a little gift.

It was an original copy of sheet music to an old, old song about headache. It was really nothing, but when I gave it to him he got teary eyes, I got teary eyes, he hugged me and thanked me…I was thrilled. I believe he has it in his office!!!

Teri Robert: Wisdom, knowledge, generosity, and kindness – all wrapped up in a package with arms that were quick with a hug. I’ll miss him. I was blessed to have him in my life.

Mo Levin: The striking and sort of incredible thing to me about Fred was his ability to connect with anyone in any line of work or situation, from individuals to AHS lecture ballrooms. How did he do it? I think he had the rare talent of being able to communicate to his listener that he was interested in their concerns, and what they might have to say back. I learned a lot about connecting with others from him, and it has helped me to be a better teacher, a better physician and a better person I think.

Allan Purdy: He was one of the most interesting and fascinating people I’ve ever met in my life. Fred was ‘special’ to me and to all who knew him. His passion for all things related to headache was unsurpassed, in my opinion, as well as his compassion and care for people with headache disorders.

He was the only non-Canadian—fully dues-paying, as he reminded us all—member of the Canadian Headache Society. We all loved Fred and welcomed him to our country on many occasions. Fred truly was a man of the world; he made a huge difference in my life, the life of several of my colleagues and friends, and, of course, the lives of numerous patients. Simply put, life with Fred was just so much richer and better! He will be missed ‘north of the border’ and all around the world!

Joel Saper: 31 years ago I was at a headache meeting in Arizona and in line for the breakfast buffet when two young men came up to me and asked if they could sit and talk about starting a clinic. Of course, it was Fred and Alan. What is noteworthy was that Fred was shaving in those days, and he was not good at it. He had nicked himself several times and put twists of tissue on each spot to stop the bleeding. He came to the breakfast adorned in bloody tissue clots. Alan apparently did not tell him. I pointed out to Fred that it would be hard to get a loan or attract patients if he continued to shave! The scruffy look saved him.

Kathleen Digre: Fred loved his patients, and his patients loved him. I take care of one of his patients now. While I see the woman once each year and she is doing well—she feels she hasn’t been seen until she sees Fred every summer when she visits her family in Connecticut. He had a plan for every patient and the best part is the patient understood the plan!

What other colleague do we have that can: 1.) Write about migraine pain and depression alluding to the Dementors of Harry Potter to make a point of the life being sucked out of an individual—to the point where you really can see it in your mind’s eye. 2.) Sing about migraine and headaches in a humorous way. 3.) Be passionate about our veterans with traumatic brain injury and headache up to the last breath of his life. 4.) Be a friend and promoter of all—a society, the AHS board, the patient website, patients everywhere, headache education, headache research, and colleagues from around the world?

When you were with Fred, you felt like you always had a friend. Blessed be his memory among us all. We are so lucky to have had him travel with us as long as he did. We will miss him greatly.

Jes Olesen: Fred was very actively involved in the International Headache Classification. It was on his initiative that the term medication “overuse” headache was introduced. It was important for him not to talk about abuse or dependency. He pointed out that overuse was often if not usually the doctor’s fault, not the patient’s. We must thank him for convincing me, and others, about the word overuse, so that patients with this problem are met with the understanding that he himself would have provided.

Alan Rapoport, Fred’s longtime partner and colleague: Fred and I have been close friends and partners since that day in 1972 when I cold called him about a problem. I had heard about him from another doctor. When he did not have time to talk to me about it, I said, “You seem pretty uptight for a psychiatrist.” I found out that he was concerned about his upcoming board exam, and I told him that I took my boards on the same day in Boston. We ended up studying for the boards together, teaching one another, became close friends and the rest is history. Fred and I were perfect partners, the first psychiatrist/neurologist headache team, and we complemented each other well. Fred was a brilliant psychiatrist, top of the line headache expert, innovative, great marketer and writer and most of all a genuinely warm and caring doctor, husband, father and friend.

He reached the top of the mountain and stayed there even when heroically battling illness. He was my other brother. He and I, and our wives and kids, lived much of our lives together. There was lots of travel and music and food and fun, a few minor problems, but life was good. He was one giant person. Fred, we love you.

And now from me: I know Fred would have said that he only reached the heights he did because of the support of his family when he was a child and as a man the love and faith of his wonderful wife Karen and his children. He was so proud of you, and he loved you. He was blessed with his family and in his friends. He was particularly grateful the last time I talked with him for the steadfast friendship and loyalty of Randy Weeks and Steve Baskin.

The last words belong to Fred. In preparation for the 50th anniversary of the American Headache Society in 2007 I had the privilege of interviewing many of the great figures of the headache field of the last half-century, and Fred of course was one of them. As it happened, my interview with Fred took place shortly after he had learned of his illness. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back and listening to the tape it seems clear to me that he was in a contemplative mood during the interview and was taking the measure of his career. Here are Fred’s own words:

“I can say for myself it’s been a great ride! I’ve really enjoyed it every step of the way, even with all the aggravation that goes along with it. I know that we’re all in it for the same reason. There are so many relationships over the years I continue to treasure with so many good people. I think people who get into the headache field are special in some ways because you’re dealing with an orphan population—people who’ve been left behind, who’ve been forgotten. I’m happy about what I’ve done. I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

To Karen, Jason, Lauren, Steven, Wilma and all of Fred’s family, on behalf of Fred’s professional colleagues around the globe—really his professional family— know that we will never forget Fred. You can rely on us to keep the faith and keep his memory alive.

Farewell, Fred. Such golden hours we shared, and didn’t we love him so?

“It’s been a GREAT ride!”