December 2, 2015
A guest blog by Jeremy Waletzky, MD

Every year since 2003, NIDA has honored a young career scientist with the Society for Neuroscience Jacob P. Waletzky Memorial Award for Innovative Research in Drug Addiction and Alcoholism. This award, given at NIDA’s  Society for Neuroscience satellite meeting (Frontiers in Addiction Research),  would not be possible without the generosity of the Waletzky Family, who in memory of their son, wanted to recognize research contributions in the area of drug addiction or alcoholism, and the nervous system. Having just awarded our 13th such honor this fall, many people associate the award with excellence in science, but it is important to remember the young man who inspired the award in the first place. So I have asked his father, Dr. Jeremy Waletzky, to share some thoughts about their family’s experience with the devastating disease of addiction.
Jacob WaletzkyJacob Waletzky

To outsiders, Jacob, age 29, seemed to live an enviable life. He was bright, graduated cum laude from Yale, and had just finished his MFA in fiction writing at Columbia. Ironically, Jacob was the winner of a prestigious literary prize for his work.  The prize was established to honor the memory of a former student whose death resulted from a heroin overdose. I remember telling Jacob, “You better not follow in his footsteps!”

Jacob was funny and good-looking. He had a beautiful, creative, and accomplished girlfriend. His endless number of friends dated back to pre-school years, and family relationships were good.  However, he was plagued by a speedball (cocaine and heroin) addiction for more than five years.

Previous to his death, Jacob had completed a four-week inpatient program at Hazelden Addiction Center and was drug-free for five months. Indeed, as one of his friends expressed it, “Jacob was flourishing in mind, body, and spirit. He had tasted steady purity and looked like new.” Jacob was proud of his sobriety.

That all ended May 20, 2001, the worst day of my life. A call from Jacob's girlfriend:  “Dr. Waletzky, I've got some horrible news. Jacob is dead.” I couldn't believe it, and heard myself saying, “Maybe he's just asleep and will wake up.” She said. “No, he's dead and I'm waiting for the medical examiner.”

I got on the next plane to New York, crying freely. After sitting for a while, I found myself wailing. The stewardess said, “Oh, now sir, it can't be that bad.” In my mind I said, “No it's worse.”

When I arrived, Jacob was lying on the floor of his apartment covered by an old blanket. I didn't lift it, knowing Jacob was beneath it, and I didn't want to see his dead face. The next days were filled with decisions to be made: embalm or not, casket type, cremation or burial, memorial service venue and speakers, burial location, writing speeches.

Thirty of Jacob's friends were invited to attend a dinner we hosted the night before the service. That evening, seven friends claimed Jacob as their best friend, and more than 400 people attended his service.  Jacob was charismatic and touched many lives.

Jacob's mother and I wanted to do something positive to commemorate Jacob's life. I knew that if there had been an effective treatment, Jacob would have used it.  He had undergone a variety of psychosocial treatments, including individual psychotherapy, 12-step programs, and inpatient treatment. Although somewhat helpful, Jacob was still dead. I did not foresee a major improvement in these techniques. As a psychiatrist whose expertise is in the use of medication with depressed, bipolar, and anxious patients, I feel that major breakthroughs in the treatment of drug abuse will require advances in the basic neuroscience of addiction. Treatments may include medications and possibly the use electromagnetic-field therapies.

Our decision to establish an award in Jacob's name was based on our hope to stimulate increased visibility and funding of addiction research. We also wanted the award to be forward-looking, to enhance the awardee's future opportunities, thus the decision that it should be for researchers in mid-career.

The Society for Neuroscience, an organization of 40,000 members, is the largest neuroscience society in the world.  More than 30,000 people attend its annual meetings: Therefore, it is the ideal home.  With the enthusiastic backing of Huda Akil, the president in 2003, the Society agreed to accept the award. The Jacob P. Waletzky Award is given at the annual meeting to a young scientist who is within 15 years of having received his or her Ph.D. or M.D. degree and whose independent research has led to significant conceptual and empirical contributions to the understanding of drug addiction. Both basic- and clinical-research applicants are eligible for the award. 

As a member of the award’s selection committee, one of my great pleasures each year is to review applications. It is a window into the advances in the research over the past 12 years. Waletzky awardees are neuroscientists involved in alcohol, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and nicotine addiction.

The power of the Jacob P. Waletzky award has been strengthened by two not-anticipated events. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, has made the winner of each year’s award the keynote speaker in their annual pre-conference prior to the start of the Society’s meetings. In her introduction to the award winner, Nora shows Jacob’s photograph on big screens before the audience. Inevitably, I start to cry.

My friend, Kay Redfield Jamison, began hosting a dinner to honor the current the winner and inviting all previous winners the night of the speech. This has led to wonderful feelings of collegiality among all winners. 

In the early years after Jacob's death, each anniversary was unique. Over time, they have become less raw. Instead of focusing on the anniversary of his death, I began celebrating his birthday. After eight years, following a dream in which Jacob appeared telling me everything would be all right, my relationship to Jacob, his life and his death, reached steady-state.  I know that the award has helped with my acceptance of his death, knowing that something useful has come from the tragic end to his life.

Get more information on the Jacob P. Waletzky Award from the Society for Neuroscience web site.

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