Dr. Gary K. Michelson: Inventor and life-saver

When Dr. Gary K. Michelson was 7, he was sitting at the Formica table in his grandmother’s kitchen in Philadelphia when he smelled the odor of burning flesh.
March 31, 2016

When Dr. Gary K. Michelson was 7, he was sitting at the Formica table in his grandmother’s kitchen in Philadelphia when he smelled the odor of burning flesh. “She was at the stove, and I turned around, and she was just leaning her hand on a burner, and I could see flames coming up through her fingers,” Michelson recalled of his grandmother. “I screamed, and then she doused out her hand in the sink. And she said, ‘That’s nothing; I do that all the time.’ ”

For decades, Michelson’s grandmother had suffered from syringomyelia, a spinal disease that causes wracking back pain and also pain and insensitivity to temperature in the hands and feet. She simply could not feel the flames licking at her fingers.

Michelson’s grandmother had already visited top syringomyelia experts at the time; her physician had advised her husband that there was nothing to do for her except buy her a wheelchair. Through sheer determination, she continued to walk, even though her back was so crooked she couldn’t stand up straight. 

“One day,” she told her grandson, “you’ll become a doctor, and you’ll fix me.”

Sitting in his airy Brentwood home, Michelson tells the story as if the distant memory is still raw. At 67, he is now a retired orthopedic surgeon, prolific medical inventor and a groundbreaking, renowned philanthropist — shaped by what he calls the “nightmare” of his grandmother’s suffering.

After he left home at 17, Michelson did just what his grandmother said, working odd jobs to put himself through Hahnemann Medical College (now Drexel University), from which he earned his medical degree in 1975. In 1980, he moved west to set up a practice in Los Angeles. There, he developed and patented more than 900 medical procedures and devices that have revolutionized spinal surgery.

In 2004, Michelson prevailed in a licensing lawsuit brought against him by the medical technology megacorporation Medtronic. After the company’s unsuccessful attempt to take the rights to Michelson’s medical inventions, he received a settlement of $1.35 billion, including for the purchase of a majority of the patents related to spinal technology, he said. The money made him one of the richest people in the United States, according to Forbes, and effectively launched his philanthropic career.

In his giving, Michelson continues to focus on medical research, but his reach now extends far beyond orthopedics.

In 2005, he created the Michelson Medical Research Foundation, to which he’s contributed $100 million. The goal, in part, is to develop a vaccine that will cure the estimated 1.4 billion people worldwide who suffer from debilitating parasitic worms.

His 20 Million Minds Foundation seeks to make higher education more effective and inexpensive, including by placing textbooks online for college students who cannot afford them, along with interactive content.

Michelson’s Found Animals Foundation, which runs a website promoting pet adoption and advice on microchips, among other things, is offering $50 million in grant research funds as well as a $25 million prize to scientists who can discover a way to chemically spay and neuter animals with a single, low-cost injection.

And, in 2014, Michelson and his wife, Alya, donated $50 million to the University of Southern California toward the creation of a convergent bioscience center in hopes of producing medical breakthroughs. “We’re going to cure cancer; we’re going to cure heart disease,” he said, ebulliently. “There’s stuff going on there right now that’s going to change the world.”

The center already has achieved a major breakthrough enabling scientists to refine and improve the effectiveness of a tool that can remove any gene in the body and replace it with another.

It’s hardly science for science’s sake. “I have been talking to people for a long time about what I consider the major defect in academic science, which I call heads-down research,” Michelson said. “I [know someone] who’s absolutely brilliant, but he put his face to a microscope 50 years ago, and then when he was old, he stood up and went his own way. How did the world benefit from that? They tell you it’s science for science’s sake, and they’re proud of it. But you’re not helping anybody; nothing’s happening. I almost used an expletive about that. Do something that will help people now, and build on that.”

USC President C.L. Max Nikias said Michelson’s $50 million grant is one of the larger gifts the university has received. “This is a brilliant, brilliant individual who truly believes in making a difference,” Nikias said in a telephone interview. “He really cares about the human condition.”

In conversation, the tall, imposing Michelson is bold, no-nonsense and a natural raconteur, peppering his discourse with references to sources as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, William Somerset Maugham and even “Star Trek.” He sat on a couch in his den with his 10-year-old white whippet, Gracie, cuddled up beside him.

“I rescued her out of this woman’s chicken-wire coop,” he said. Michelson’s other dog, a pit bull named Honey, was discovered bleeding and left to die in the street, with her side slashed and her muzzle taped shut. “And yet she’s the sweetest dog in the world,” he said.

In December, when Michelson was honored by B’nai B’rith International with its distinguished achievement award, he did not speak about himself, but rather lauded the people who run his foundations and showed a videotape his wife had made to celebrate their son’s second birthday. The Michelsons have three children, ages 1 to 6, and live in a home that appears modest by billionaires’ standards. He also still drives a 2000 Chrysler. “People ask, ‘Why don’t you have a Ferrari?’ ” he said. “But I don’t need that. There are people who need to be ‘big’ in the world, or grandiose, and then there are people who don’t. And getting money doesn’t change who you are. You are still whoever you were at the beginning.”

Michelson grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Philadelphia, where the atmosphere was often tense. “I had violent parents; it was just like warfare,” he said. “The only warm, living thing there that wasn’t dangerous was my boxer, Chase. He was probably what kept me sane — the only thing you could touch where you didn’t have to worry about them turning around and hitting you.”

During his third year in medical school, Michelson was appalled to learn that he would be required to take part in a “dog lab,” in which “two people got assigned a perfectly healthy dog, and every week over the course of 14 weeks, you had to go in and take out an organ,” he said. “They tried to rationalize that, saying, ‘Oh, these aren’t really normal dogs … they’re like wild animals.’ Except that mine sat up and begged when I walked into the room. The dogs were given no post-operative pain medication. So I took one look and said, ‘I will not do this.’ And the dean of the medical school said, ‘We will flunk you out.’ ”

Then, during the time in which the dean was convening a committee to oust Michelson, the medical student invented a surgery through which he was able to transplant a rib bone into a 10-year-old girl’s deformed leg, to avert the need to amputate.

“Two of the most famous orthopedic surgeons in the world wrote long, glowing letters to my medical school about this brilliant, young orthopedic [student] who had come up with a solution to a problem that doctors had been struggling with for 50 years,” he said. “They said they would hold a spot for me in their residency program. So my medical school decided they weren’t going to throw me out after all — that’s the only reason I got out of dog lab.”

Michelson went on to a residency program that took place, in part, at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Philadelphia, where many of the patients had rare genetic muscular-skeletal diseases. Surgeries often took more than eight hours to complete, so that “nobody wanted to do them,” Michelson said. “But I always took those charts.”

When Michelson announced that he wanted to specialize in spinal surgery, “one of the doctors turned to me and said, ‘Are you crazy? Because if you’re really good, and you do everything just right, only about half of your patients will ever get better.’ ”

Inspired by his grandmother, Michelson stuck to that career path, and, along the way, continued to invent procedures and devices, including ones that diminish blood loss, pain, disability and recovery time for patients. “George Bernard Shaw once said that inventors are a disgruntled lot,” Michelson said. Whenever he was troubled by a surgical procedure that wasn’t working well, he sought to improve it.

For example, surgeons would fuse vertebrae and then, if a patient still had pain, they would reopen them and scrape everything off the bone to make sure it had healed without any cracks. “But I thought that was crazy,” Michelson said. So he came up with the idea to use nuclear scans to determine whether “occult fractures” existed that didn’t show up on X-rays.

He also invented a groundbreaking way to make the sockets between vertebrae uniform shapes so that they could accommodate artificial disks.

By 2001, Michelson’s patents had earned him a fortune of $300 million, according to Forbes. But he didn’t come into the “big money,” as he put it, until he prevailed in the licensing lawsuit that Medtronic had brought against him that year. By the time the suit was fully resolved, in 2004, Michelson felt as if he had lived for several years “under siege.” But the $1.35 billion gleaned from the settlement enabled him to embark upon his charitable work in earnest, at first relying on the advice of fellow philanthropists, such as Michael Milken and Eli Broad.

Michelson started his Found Animals Foundation after he learned of the tens of thousands of pets who starved to death and drowned after Hurricane Katrina — and of the Katrina victims who lost their animals in the disaster. He came up with the idea to provide free microchips to pet owners nationwide, which he did for a while. The foundation continues to offer low-cost microchips.

Then he turned to the many stray animals. “In the United States, the government spends more than $2.5 billion collecting cats and dogs in order to kill them,” he said. Surgically spaying and neutering pets was one answer, but “there were no drug companies researching how to induce infertility in animals.”

Michelson’s foundation hopes to stimulate such study by offering grant and prize money for the inventors of a sterility vaccine; among many other efforts, it also searches animal shelters for pets destined to be put to death the next day and finds owners for the animals through an adoption program. Its website is a resource for pet adoption and microchipping, as well. So far, the foundation’s programs have helped some 1.5 million pets.

Dr. Gary K. Michelson, founder of the Found Animals Foundation, poses with his wife, Alya, while attending the 2015 Found Animals Gala, which honored outstanding animal welfare champions, at the SLS hotel.  Photo by OG Photography

Michelson said he has received sporadic hate mail for focusing some of his philanthropy on animals. “But people are entitled to give their money to whatever they want,” he said. “You need to do what you are passionate about. But it’s not true that I care more about animals than people.” 

In fact, Michelson started his Medical Research Foundation, which benefits humans, with an initial gift of $100 million.

He got the idea several years ago, when he chanced to read an opinion piece, written by a pre-eminent tropical disease specialist, describing how “1.4 billion people in the world are infected with worms that are eating them from the inside out,” he said. “Some of these little kids you see with the swollen stomachs — those are all worms.” 

These parasites are also a leading cause of death during childbirth among infected mothers, and a top contributor to developmental disabilities among their children. “So it was shocking and disturbing to me that nobody seemed to care,” he said.

Thus emerged Michelson’s plan to fund an anti-worm vaccine. His medical foundation also benefits additional research that would be considered too avant-garde to be funded by the National Institutes of Health or other conventional sources, he said.

The philanthropist’s numerous efforts have also included two major reforestation efforts in Central America, resulting in the planting of seven million trees in some 50 square miles.

Asked why he has not made Jewish charities a focus of his work, Michelson said, “To me, that’s like a small-world view of things. It’s never occurred to me to ask what religion people are.

“What do I want on my tombstone?” he said. “ ‘He made a difference. He tried to change the world, and to leave it a little bit better.’” 

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