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Brooklyn mourns loss of Dr. Mike Avram

Pioneer in nephrology, civic philanthropist

February 21, 2023 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Morrell Michael Avram, one of the first nephrologists and a pioneer of the use of artificial kidney dialysis, died peacefully at home on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023. He was 93.

A leader in the new field of nephrology, he made pathbreaking advances in the treatment of patients with diabetes and kidney failure through dialysis and kidney transplants. He was the first doctor to use the artificial kidney on diabetes patients and successfully to treat diabetics with renal failure. Dr. Avram was Professor of Medicine at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center and Adjunct Professor of Medicine at SUNY Stony Brook University School of Medicine.

The formative experience of the Holocaust fueled his life of dedicated service and care. Dr. Avram was born in Bucharest, Romania on Nov. 11, 1929. From a middle-class Jewish family, his life was transformed in 1940, when Romania joined the Axis Alliance with Nazi Germany. His U.S.-born mother, Rella, and sister, Liliana, were able to escape to America; he and his father, Mendel, unable to procure travel visas, found themselves trapped in a country with a long history of virulent antisemitism. Hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews were rounded up and massacred. Somehow, he and his father managed to escape capture by living in hiding for 6 years, sometimes together, sometimes apart. In 1946, at 16, he was able to join his mother and sister in New York City.

In 1951, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Korean War. Because of his fluency in six languages, he was deployed to Europe. At Fort Sam Houston during training, an influential drill sergeant would repeat a mantra that infused Dr. Avram with a lasting courage, perseverance, and work ethic: “You are the storm! You are indefatigable! You will prevail!”

Morrell Michael Avram with the love of his life, Maria, at an event commemorating their contributions to the medical field. Eagle file photo

After his two years in the Army, he returned home and graduated from Long Island University. He thereafter attended medical school at the University of Geneva Medical School. There, he met Swiss-born Maria Künzle, who was studying to become a pediatric nurse. She emigrated to the U.S., and they married in 1961. Never apart for 63 years, they lived throughout their marriage in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

After graduating from the University of Geneva, Dr. Avram began his medical career at Long Island College Hospital in 1959. This was a time when the field of nephrology did not yet exist. He served at LICH for more than fifty years, first as intern, then internal medicine resident, and eventually Chief of Nephrology and Professor of medicine. There, he and a team of doctors began experimenting with the first artificial kidney invented in 1943 by Dr. Willem Kolff. In 1964, Dr. Avram tried using dialysis on diabetic patients for the first time and, with Dr. Joe McGinn, published the success of this advancement.

Affiliated with LICH until its closing, Dr. Avram continued to make innovations and invent techniques in the use of dialysis and kidney transplants. He was the first nephrologist successfully to treat diabetics with renal failure, which makes up a significant portion of patients treated today on dialysis. Kidney dialysis is now routinely used to treat diabetes and kidney failure and has saved millions of lives worldwide.

Morrell Michael Avram. Photo courtesy of Dr. Morrell Michael Avram

Dr. Avram remained a clinician as well as a researcher throughout his lifetime. In 1974, he founded the Brooklyn Kidney Center, which serves hospitals in many under-served communities in Brooklyn. Refusing to join a suburban and well-paying practice, he saw his life-mission as serving those patients who due to their economic circumstances faced the greatest hardships. In the early years of his work, neither insurance companies nor Medicaid reimbursed for most of his procedures. As he observed about this period, “Yet we were saving lives. If that’s not the goal, then what is medicine for?”

After LICH closed in 2014, he joined SUNY Downstate Medical Center as Professor of Medicine and Stony Brook University School of Medicine, where he worked until his death. In his more than sixty-year career, he personally saved the lives of tens of thousands of patients with his treatments and trained hundreds of fellows in nephrology.

As his son Mathew Avram, Associate Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School, describes, “His work and spirit uplifted and saved countless patients. He also had a passion for research and a tireless energy.” His medical advances and expertise are captured in his scholarship. He authored hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and co-authored and co-edited 12 textbooks. He also wrote a memoir of his extraordinary life, entitled “I Am the Storm: My Odyssey from the Holocaust to the Frontiers of Medicine.

Among his several honors are the Medal of Excellence from the American Association of Kidney Patients, the Lester Hoenig Award of the National Kidney Foundation for outstanding scientific and humanitarian achievement, and the Medical Recognition Award from the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.

Dr. Avram’s book cover of “I Am The Storm.”

He and his wife Maria have supported many causes, including the Avram Theater at Stony Brook Southampton, Long Island University and Pianofest. He was a Founding Member and Honorary Trustee of The Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in the community he loved and where his family continues to live.

He will be remembered not only for his medical brilliance, but also for his joyous love of and devotion to his family that revered him. He inspired his children, four of whom followed in his footsteps and became doctors and his fifth, an executive at Disney ABC News.

Dr. Avram is survived by his beloved wife, Maria; sister, Lillian Friedman; five children, Dr. Rella Hartman, Dr. Marc Avram, Eric Avram, Dr. Mathew Avram, Dr. David Avram; their spouses, Joe Hartman, Robin Avram, Dr. Alison Avram, Kristi Avram; and his grandchildren, Andrew, Zoe, William, Robert, Jacob, Benjamin, Lilly, Alexander, Rachel, Noah, Joshua and Emily. He will be buried in a private service at New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon on Monday, Feb. 20.


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