By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
Dr. Gilbert Friedell, who was a fierce advocate for health equity and finding community-based solutions to the many health issues that plague Kentucky, died Sept. 23 at the age of 91.
His mantra,”If the problems are in the community, the solutions are in the community,” was a drumbeat message that will continue to guide the efforts of many who knew him.
“It is difficult to imagine a more selfless man of medicine,” said veteran journalist Al Smith.
Friedell was described in his obituary as an “avid student,” attending Harvard College in 1943 at the age of 16 and graduating from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1950. He then went on to receive his medical training in pathology in Boston and served as a physician in the Navy reserves for two plus years.
He was a medical faculty member at Harvard, Boston University, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Kentucky, where he became the first director of the Lucille Parker Markey Cancer Center in 1983, with a focus on cancer prevention.
He stepped down as the director in 1990 to run Markey Cancer Control Program, where he worked to convey breast-cancer information to the public and health professionals through the Kentucky Cancer Program, the Kentucky Cancer Registry and a regional information service for Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas — all organizations that he helped to create. He retired from this position in 1998.
Friedell was an unwavering advocate for increasing health care access to Kentucky’s underserved citizens, especially those who lived in Eastern Kentucky. To that end, he co-founded Kentucky Homeplace, a lay health-worker program funded by the Kentucky General Assembly that facilitates access to health-care services in 30 Eastern Kentucky counties.
Since 1994, the program has served over 161,968 people who have received access to more than 4.9 million services valued at $324.4 million, according to Fran Feltner, director of UK’s Center for Excellence in Rural Health, where the program is based.
“Gil was a true friend and mentor,” Feltner said. “He truly understood the community.”
Feltner recalled how they testified to lawmakers in Washington and Frankfort about the value of community health workers and helped pass the national Patient Navigator Bill, which recognizes the need for improving access to care.
“His legacy will never be forgotten and his love for the community will live in my heart and in our work as we continue the lessons learned,” Feltner said.
Friedell’s legacy will also continue in the work of the Friedell Committee on Health System Transformation, which he founded. He asked that it not bear his name, but the other members unanimously overruled him. The committees’ mission is “to improve the health of Kentuckians by promoting an effective, values-based health system, advocating for community action, and measuring the system’s performance.”
“Gil indeed touched each of us deeply,” said Carolyn Dennis, executive director of the committee. “His determination for a just healthcare system that respects the inherent right of every individual to receive the best care possible was contagious; everyone associated with the Friedell Committee carries that same passion and sorrow in his passing. . . . He will be sorely missed but his legacy will live on by all who knew and loved him.”
Dennis described Friedell as a “consummate gentleman,” partial to wearing a “jaunty bow tie and beret,” who was “tireless in his quest to engage leaders in every geographic corner of the state to improve the health of their communities.”
Friedell was the recipient of numerous awards, authored more than 200 articles in medical publications, served on many state and national public-health committees, and co-authored The Great Diabetes Epidemic: A Manifesto for Control and Prevention that published in 2014.
“To those who knew him, Gil will be remembered for his wise personal and professional counsel, incisive questions, wit, infectious chuckle, poetic annual holiday letters and fondness for bowties,” his obituary says. “Gil dedicated his life to transforming inequitable systems to make the world a better place.”
Smith, a Friedell Committee member, said, “We remember him best when we do all we can for the good health of Kentucky.”
Friedell is survived by Jan, his wife of 67 years, four of their five children, seven grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter. A memorial service will be held in Charleston, S.C. in the fall with details to follow. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Gilbert H. Friedell Resident Scholar in Cancer Prevention and Control Fund, University of Kentucky, Markey Cancer Center, 800 Rose Street, Lexington KY 40536, to the attention of Elisha Maxson.