Remembering Ralph L. Sacco
AHA/ASA pays tribute to a friend and colleague.
Ralph L. Sacco, MD, MS, FAAN, FAHA, the only physician to have served as both the president of the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Neurology, the first neurologist to serve as president of the AHA, and an expert on stroke risk and prevention, died Jan. 17, 2023, of a brain tumor at his home in Long Island, New York. He was 65.
He was the founder of the Northern Manhattan Study, a professor of neurology, public health sciences, human genetics and neurosurgery at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine and the Olemberg Family Chair in Neurological Disorders.
American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown remembered Dr. Sacco as a dear friend and an unparalleled leader whose “warm, generous heart and care transcended his research and clinic to every person fortunate to meet him,” she said, visibly emotional.
“The association is forever grateful that he chose to share his time and extraordinary talents with us,” she said. “We will continue to honor his memory through the work we do to champion health equity and longer, healthier lives for all people.”
Dr. Sacco’s many roles at Miami included chairman of the Department of Neurology, executive director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute and — in an example of his leadership more broadly in medicine — he was director of the university’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute.
Dr. Sacco also was editor of the AHA’s journal Stroke, the premier scientific journal for research in the stroke field. Overseeing the prestigious publication meant a lot to Dr. Sacco. Having long championed diversity and equity — particularly in his research — he insisted that half of the editorial board be represented by women and people of color. That was in 2020; by 2022, he’d achieved it.
“He saw that as part of his legacy — expanding the diversity of vascular neurologists and promoting the careers of the next generation of stroke leadership,” said Dr. Mitchell Elkind, one of Sacco’s proteges. “And he meant it. It’s an example of why so many people in the stroke community adored him.”
Dr. Elkind trained under Dr. Sacco at Columbia Presbyterian, then became co-director of the landmark research project that Dr. Sacco founded when Dr. Sacco went to Miami. He’s since become the second neurologist to serve as AHA president and is now the organization’s chief clinical science officer. These various vantage points gave Elkind a deep understanding of his mentor.
“He gravitated toward leadership positions because he knew he had something to contribute,” Dr. Elkind said. “He succeeded because he had that combination of operational brilliance and intellectual capacity — all the things that make someone successful as an executive — as well as the warmth, compassion and humility of a physician.”
Dr. Sacco held many key leadership roles with the AHA, including his presidency in 2010-11. His honors from the organization include the Distinguished National Leadership Award, the Gold Heart Award and the Distinguished Scientist Award.
“I was drawn to the organization because of the breadth of the people involved,” Dr. Sacco said in the video chat with Dr. Elkind.
Many risk factors for heart diseases are also stroke risk factors. Dr. Sacco sought to emphasize that link, while delving deeper into those areas that would benefit both the heart and the brain. The success of his approach was best evidenced by his ascension to the presidency, the top spot for a science volunteer.
“It was sort of thinking ahead, evolving and expanding the mission, always looking forward to the next frontier,” Dr. Sacco told Dr. Elkind.
His next frontier was becoming president of the American Academy of Neurology, from 2017-19. Sacco took great pride in strengthening the bond between the AHA and the AAN.
Read more about Dr. Sacco.