Hypertension Investigator Ronald G. Victor, MD, 1952–2018

Hypertension Investigator photo
Barber Wally Riddle takes the blood pressure of Ronald Victor, MD.     Photo credit: Cedars-Sinai

LOS ANGELES (Sept. 10 , 2018) – Ronald G. Victor, MD, a prominent hypertension expert and the first investigator to scientifically prove that thousands of lives could be saved annually if barbers were enlisted to help fight the epidemic of high blood pressure in the African-American community, died Monday, Sept. 10. He was 66.

An associate director of the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai since 2009, Victor published his most recent barbershop study results earlier this year in The New England Journal of Medicine and presented them as a Late-Breaking Clinical Trial at the American College of Cardiology’s 67th Annual Scientific Sessions. The results showed nearly 64 percent of study participants reduced their blood pressure to healthy levels after barbers took patrons’ blood pressure and then urged those with high readings to follow-up with pharmacists stationed in the barbershops.

“Dr. Victor showed genuine care and concern for our community’s high blood pressure problem, particularly as it affected black men,” said Eric Muhammad, owner of A New You Barbershop in Inglewood who helped Victor recruit African-American barbers and patrons for the trial and is listed as an author on the published study. “This doctor was an exceptional human being and one of the most humble men I’ve ever met. He didn’t see color or class. He didn’t see anything but our blood pressure problem.”

Uncontrolled hypertension is one of the most prevalent causes of premature disability and death among minorities. African-American men have the highest death rate from hypertension of any race, ethnic and gender group in the United States—three times higher than white men.

“Where others saw intractable challenges, Ron saw novel solutions,” said Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, director of the Smidt Heart Institute and a friend of Victor’s for 26 years. “His out-of-the-box thinking has created a new paradigm for serving neglected populations: Bring medicine to at-risk people rather than waiting for sickness to rear its ugly head, when it’s often too late.”

Shlomo Melmed, MD, executive vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of the Cedars-Sinai medical faculty, said Victor has left behind an unforgettable legacy of medical discoveries as well as reputation as a gentle academic who carried on with his research even as he battled a long illness.

“Ron and his wife, Vicki (Adams Victor), have endeared themselves as brave and cherished Cedars-Sinai family members both by their warmth and sensitivity, as well as by the modest self-effacing recognition of Ron’s immense standing in the field of hypertension,” Melmed said. “Ron, a true giant in the field, has left a rich, stellar legacy that  will likely benefit millions of patients worldwide. As we comfort Vicki and the Victor family, we all miss his good humor, positive and optimistic attitude and demonstration of such incredible steadfastness in the face of adversity.“

Other patients who benefitted from Victor’s work include young men and boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a neuromuscular disease that leads to progressive degeneration of body muscles, including the heart. Most Duchenne patients lose their ability to walk by their mid-teens, and their average life expectancy is about 25 years. The usual cause of death is heart failure.

Results from a Victor-led study presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in 2017 showed that after boys and young men with Duchenne muscular dystrophy received infusions of cardiac progenitor cells, medical tests indicated that the patients’ hearts appeared improved. Participants in the study also scored higher on arm strength tests after receiving the cell infusions.

But Victor was best known for his work in combating hypertension in the African-American community. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 67 million—or one in every three— American adults have high blood pressure, and fewer than half have their condition under control. High blood pressure costs the nation $47.5 billion each year, including the cost of healthcare, medication and missed work days. Among African-Americans, 43 percent of men and 45.7 percent of women have hypertension compared with 33.9 percent of white men and 31.3 percent of white women.

“Through the Los Angeles study, Dr. Victor helped nearly 400 men who had hypertension,” Muhammad said. “But his effect was so much broader than that because those men now teach their children and their sisters and their brothers and their friends. He really made a difference in the black community.”

Victor first became interested in teaching African-American barbers how to measure patrons’ blood pressure in the 1990s when he was at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he was the founding director of the Houston J. and Florence A. Doswell Center for the Development of New Approaches to the Treatment of Hypertension.

His first barbershop study was done in Dallas from 2006 to 2008. Its conclusion: Putting hypertension intervention programs in place in the estimated 18,000 African-American barbershops in the U.S. would result in about 800 fewer heart attacks, 550 fewer strokes and 900 fewer deaths in the first year alone. The new work published earlier this year in The New England Journal of Medicine, in which pharmacists were deployed at barbershops, showed even greater benefits, projecting that barbershop-based hypertension programs could save thousands of lives every year.

Victor’s barbershop work resulted in hundreds of media interviews and led to several awards, including the Humanitarian Award from the Professional Barber & Stylists Committee and the James E. Smith Trailblazer Award from the Texas Association of Tonsorial Artists. Victor also was recognized for his work by the medical community. He served as president of the Association of University Cardiologists, and he was the primary investigator on more than 140 studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals. But perhaps his most cherished award came just weeks ago, when Victor’s colleagues at the Smidt Heart Institute held a symposium to honor his contributions to medicine. The symposium title: A Breakthrough Achievement in Bringing Diagnosis and Treatment to a Vulnerable Population.

Born in 1952 in New Orleans, Victor earned his undergraduate degree summa cum laude with distinction at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, where he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. He earned his medical degree from Tulane University in New Orleans. He completed two residencies at UCLA before completing cardiology fellowships at Duke University in North Carolina, University of Iowa and University of Uppsala in Sweden.

Among his many awards and honors, Victor was a member of the editorial boards of Circulation and the Journal of Clinical Hypertension. In medical circles, he is known for co-authoring the influential textbook Kaplan’s Clinical Hypertension, with his mentor, Norman M. Kaplan, MD. When Victor lived in Dallas, he served as the president of the Dallas affiliate of the American Heart Association, and in 2009, he was president of the Association of University Cardiologists. At Cedars-Sinai, Victor was the Burns and Allen Chair in Cardiology Research.

He is survived by his wife, Vicki, his sister, Sally Victor Siegel, and his father, Harold D. Victor. Victor will be buried in New Orleans. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts can be directed “In Memory of Dr. Victor” and made to the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai. All gifts will be used to further Victor’s pioneering work in community intervention efforts to combat hypertension in neglected high-risk populations.

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