Neurocritical Care Leader Recognized for Lifetime Achievement

This article celebrates Thomas P. Bleck, MD, MCCM, who received the Society of Critical Care Medicine’s Lifetime Achievement Award during the 47th Critical Care Congress. 

Thomas P. Bleck, MD, MCCM, was an assistant professor at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois, USA, with an interest in epilepsy when he first met Roger Bone, MD, in 1984. Bleck had a lot of interests at the time. He did residencies in internal medicine and neurology, and a fellowship in EEG, and he also did part-time work in the medical intensive care unit (ICU) as an attending physician. Bone, meanwhile, was the new chief of medicine at Rush, and he brought with him a reputation of being a leader within the emerging critical care field.

Bone convinced Bleck that Bleck was an intensivist and that he should focus his time and energy on critical care. Bleck listened and adjusted his career path. “The thing that most drew me to it was the fact that you were able to see physiology at work in real time,” Bleck said. “At the same time, you were able to do things that would make a tremendous difference in people’s lives.”

Bone became the first recipient of the Society of Critical Care Medicine’s (SCCM) Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest accolade awarded in the field of critical care. Now, Bleck has joined his mentor in the prestigious club.

Bleck received the SCCM Lifetime Achievement Award in February during the 47th Annual Critical Care Congress in San Antonio, Texas, USA. “In a sense, this means coming full circle from when Roger convinced me that critical care was the right field for me,” Bleck said. “I’m very proud and humbled to be receiving this award. When I look back at the previous recipients, I feel like a bit of an imposter, but I’m happy to be numbered among them.”

Bleck is no imposter. Far from it, in fact, since he is considered one of the founding fathers of neurocritical care. The SCCM Lifetime Achievement Award “recognizes a body of significant, innovative and clinically relevant work over a career,” said SCCM President Jerry J. Zimmerman, MD, PhD, FCCM. “Dr. Bleck represents an outstanding choice for this prestigious award.”

Bleck opened just the fourth neuroscience care unit in the United States at the University of Virginia in 1990, and he was instrumental in the development of the Neurocritical Care Society. He served as its first president and continues to serve as an ex officio member of the board of directors.

Today, Bleck is a professor of neurological sciences, neurosurgery, internal medicine, and anesthesiology at Rush, where he also spent six years as the associate chief medical officer for critical care. During his career, Bleck has witnessed a drastic shift in the perception of critical care—neurocritical care in particular. “Neurocritical care as a joint discipline of general critical care, neurology, and neurosurgery barely existed back in the 1980s,” Bleck said. “Now, we’ve got a group of about 2,000 people who are board certified by the United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties from all disciplines of medicine.“What that has produced is a cadre of people who understand that a patient with serious disease of the nervous system can benefit just as much or more from critical care as patients with pulmonary or cardiac or infectious problems.”

In addition to his role with the Neurocritical Care Society, Bleck spent 23 years as the Neuroscience Section editor for SCCM’s journal Critical Care Medicine and is now an associate editor. He spent 12 years as a member of the SCCM Council and in 2017 was elected to the board of directors of the American Neurological Association. He was awarded the designation Master of Critical Care Medicine by the American College of Critical Care Medicine in 2015, an honor bestowed on less than 100 people in the world.

“Dr. Bleck is an esteemed leader in critical care,” saidbformer SCCM President Ruth M. Kleinpell, CCRN, PhD, FCCM, who served with him as a member of the SCCM Council and is a colleague at Rush. “He is an exemplary critical care clinician and consummate teacher.”

Bleck has always placed an emphasis on education andmeducating others. One lesson he continues to try to teach is that his field is not what many think it is. It’s not bleak; it’s inspirational. It’s not disheartening; it’s life-changing. “The biggest misconception about neurocritical care is that it’s a depressing field in which the patients are not going to do well,” Bleck said. “We make a lot of great saves and have a large number of people who return to work or are otherwise back in society. That’s something that people need to get a clearer picture about.”

“It helps that the study and awareness of critical care as a specialty is far greater today than it was 30 years ago”, Bleck said. In the 1980s, many of the medical professionals who saw patients in the ICU were general internists, surgeons, or pediatricians. They did not have specialized training. That is no longer the case. “Critical care is now much better recognized as a discipline that has its own contributions to make to the care of critically ill patients,” Bleck said. “People in critical care need to have specialized training and experience in the care of these patients.”

Bleck credits SCCM for helping make that realization possible. He thinks the organization has truly become multiprofessional and multidisciplinary, both of which are key to a successful critical care community. “He hasembraced the multiprofessional team concept and helps to foster collaboration that aims to achieve excellence in care,” Kleinpell said. “His numerous contributions over the years are indeed remarkable.”