Vert Mooney died yesterday afternoon on his way home from work, apparently from a heart attack or stroke. He was a pioneer in so many aspects of rehabilitation and one of the world’s foremost spine surgeons, a wonderful husband and father, and a friend and mentor whose absence will be deeply felt.
I woke up in the wee hours this morning feeling his absence. His voice is still fresh for me, “Onward and upward, man!”
I’m certain that there are many aspects of Vert I will miss that will come to mind in the coming days, but the very first that I’ve noticed is how much I value his firm graciousness and his insistence on respect for all opinions. As a pioneer in medicine, it wasn’t uncommon for him to be attacked by vested interests and by people whose cages he enjoyed rattling. I recall a scientific meeting many years ago in which we presented several research papers to about 500 orthopedic surgeons and then took questions. Our work was obviously controversial because we had scientifically demonstrated the efficacy of alternatives to expensive surgical procedures; not exactly what spine surgeons wanted to hear. One of our group was so concerned about the reception of his paper that he actually fainted at the lectern and had to be revived. After we presented, Vert was the moderator, taking questions from the floor. Immediately he was hit with angry “questions” that were really diatribes by angry red-faced surgeons who were used to telling other people what was what. Vert, with deep roots in the scientific and academic communities and as a founder and past president of all of the major pertinent professional associations simply responded with, “Thank you for your question” and asked for the microphone to be passed. He was polite and not dismissive, allowing people to have their say, trusting that our findings, based on good research, would stand on its own, which was true. As the diatribes diminished and actual questions began to surface, he encouraged all of us, but most especially the junior members of our research group to respond, which, with Vert having our back, we were able to do. That was a very special moment for me and provided a template for how to be a mentor and senior scientist. Being a pioneer is fun, but it is often difficult and the absolute best way to defuse difficult situations is with grace. Vert was firm, not backing away from a fight, but always treating everyone in the conversation with grace and respect.
Today, I send prayers to Verts family and many friends, for our shared loss and thanking God for his gift of Vert’s presence. Millions have benefited from his work, many of us directly, and the world is so much better because he led and inspired us.