PAULA KERR, Herald News Staff Reporter July 19, 2001
Dr. Andrew Wilner is at a fine place in his life, albeit one outside the conventional -- never mind rapidly changing -- medical system in which he'd been a major player most of his professional life.

 

Herald News Photo by DAVE SOUZA Dr. Andrew N. Wilner, a neurologist whose specialty is epilepsy, has authored his second book, become a globe-trotting medical journalist and won a prestigious prize for fiction.

 

"I created my own job description," allows the 46-year-old, who is now pursuing the lifelong goals of writing and learning within the framework of his background as an eminent neurologist, specializing in epilepsy.

He's written a case book for other physicians, won a prestigious fiction prize, and globe trots to fulfill free-lance assignments for a variety of neurology publications as well as the Website Medscape.com

The son of Myron and Marion Wilner of this city is doing all of this from Newport, R.I., a place that factored heavily in his rather unusual decision to strike out on his own.

'This is home for me," he sighs, explaining that during his youth, the family owned a summer home in Middletown, R.I., and so for him the area is special. "I got a lot of job offers, but all meant relocating."

The chance to work elsewhere came a few years back when Wilner left Brown University and a clinical associate professorship in neurology. He'd been medical director of the Carolinas Epilepsy Center in Charlotte, N.C., when the opportunity to work at his alma mater was offered.

"I was very excited," he says. Among other things, the plan was to begin an epilepsy center, like the one down south, to handle Rhode Island cases that are normally referred to centers in Boston or at New Haven, Conn.

While some in the medical field thought it a good idea, others didn't. Adding to the debate was the then poor financial health of Rhode Island Hospital, where the center would have been situated.

"The idea of starting something new didn't look possible to me," Wilner says, explaining that when coupled with changes in academic medicine -- that diminish the protected time professors are granted to lecture, research, write and travel -- he realized it was time to move on.

The way the neurologist tells it, academic medicine, bereft of time and resources, is in crisis nationwide, and so physicians are asking themselves if they should work for major universities or major pharmaceutical companies. "Their missions are different, although the end may be the same," he says.

Wilner was weighing those options himself at about the time Demos, publisher of his highly successful first book -- "Epilepsy: 199 Answers (A Doctor Responds to His Patients' Questions)" -- asked for another, this time aimed at physicians.

He agreed, and the result, "Epilepsy in Clinical Practice: A Case Study Approach," is garnering rave reviews in medical circles.

"It was three years in the making," says Wilner, "one and a half years writing full time, every day. That's why there aren't more books like this."

Part of the book's value lies in the fact that all of the problems presented -- although culled and mixed from Wilner's own experience -- are real, multiple solutions are offered, and the pros and cons of each answer are discussed so informed decisions can be made.

Another part of the book's value is that it puts the explosion of new information into context so the busy physician can actually use it. "Since 1993, eight new drugs for epilepsy have been developed," says Wilner. "And you've got to be familiar with the pros and cons ... no one is putting that information in context for you."

Certainly it all sounds swell, living in an island community and writing a well-regarded book from a snug home office. But there is a downside. "You can't make a living writing books like this," explains Wilner. "I wrote it as a professional challenge and an opportunity to learn more stuff."

Still, the second book helped solidify his reputation as a neurologist who can write for either patient or physician. And, thus, he has been able to cobble together a growing number of freelance assignments.

While there are physicians who work as medical journalists reporting on this drug, that conference, their ranks are slim. Wilner, naturally, has added value because he's an expert in the field of epilepsy.

"I think good writing skills are unusual in any profession," he says. "People don't appreciate the time it takes, so, even if a physician has them, there's no time to hone them."

His newfound work -- for Neurology Reviews, Medscape and the National Institutes of Health -- has taken him from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to London to Scotland. But now, rather than standing before his colleagues, making the presentation, he's sitting in the audience taking notes. And he's doing what was so often done to him, tracking down the presenters for additional quotes.

"Most people want to talk to me," says Wilner. "And I like the focus ... the mission of conveying information. I feel it's a public service."

Another thing he enjoys is the finiteness of each project. "With patients, it's a never-ending cycle, you never leave the office with a feeling it's done."

Still, he misses seeing patients, and that is perhaps reflected in his short story, "That's It!'', which won the 2001 Award For Creative Expression of Human Values in Neurology. The honor, bestowed at the 53rd annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, came as a nice surprise to Wilner.

In the piece of fiction, he explores the frustration experienced by both a neurologist and a patient over a decade-long course of treatment, during which neither see much progress. In the end, each acknowledge a measure of appreciation for the other and the struggle they've been through. "That's reasonable because a lot of what we do isn't curative," says Wilner .

Meanwhile, he maintains a private practice, limited to reading electroencephalographs. "I'm still sort of in the loop," he says. "It keeps me active clinically."

ŠThe Herald News 2001