Obituary: Gilbert Brenes / Rehab doctor dedicated to patients

Sept. 21, 1934 - July 2, 2013

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Gilbert Brenes' personal motto, "whatever it takes," is a fitting one for a man who rose from a family of modest means in San Jose, Costa Rica, to a career as a rehabilitation physician who worked unstintingly with his paralyzed patients.

"Sometimes I had to wait until 11 o'clock at night to get my results [from him], and then at 6 a.m. he'd be back in my room doing something else. It was like he never slept," said Scotty Williams of Monroeville, who spent time in 1983 at Harmarville Rehabilitation Center, where Dr. Brenes was medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program for 29 years. Friends, family members, colleagues and students of Dr. Brenes all described him as a hardworking physician who was dedicated to his patients.

"How many doctors do you know that give you their personal cell phone numbers?" said Mr. Williams.

Dr. Brenes, 78, died Tuesday at UPMC Presbyterian following a heart attack. A pioneer in the field of spinal cord injury medicine, Dr. Brenes focused on a holistic approach when treating his patients, individuals who were partially or entirely paralyzed and "have to learn to do everything again," Mr. Williams said.

During his time at Harmarville, he put together a team of nurses, doctors and specialists who could address the gamut of difficulties a patient might encounter. According to Mr. Williams, Dr. Brenes wanted to make sure his patients knew everything from what to do when people stared at them because of their wheelchairs, to what their organs looked like under a scan. He also initiated a program of lifetime follow-up care, checking up on his patients at least once a year to make sure they were doing well medically and had transitioned to a high-quality life.

"In the modern era, physicians cut off patients within 20 seconds of talking to them. Dr. Brenes was an outstanding listener," said Justin Berthold of Forest Hills, administrative chief resident of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at UPMC Mercy and a former student of Dr. Brenes'.

Dr. Brenes was also known to hold his patients to high standards, requiring them to memorize details of their treatment plan -- and then testing them on it -- before letting them leave the rehabilitation program.

Dr. Brenes' emphasis on dedication, patience and high standards had early roots.

The youngest of 10 children, Dr. Brenes left his native Costa Rica aboard a cargo ship loaded with bananas, headed for Chile to study physical therapy at the University of Chile. He then continued his work and education at the Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Brighton, Mass., and the D.T. Watson School of Physiatrics in Leetsdale.

He then returned to Costa Rica, first working at the Children's Hospital in San Jose as the chief of the Physical Therapy Department, and then entered the University of Costa Rica School of Medicine in San Jose.

In 1972, he returned to the United States to attend the physical medicine and rehabilitation residency program at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh.

While still in Costa Rica, Dr. Brenes studied from English textbooks, which were cheaper: "Dad would take the medical books in English, translate them to Spanish, and then start studying," said his daughter, Kathia Kennedy of Marshall.

Dr. Brenes emphasized the importance of education to his children, co-workers and patients, creating clubs for his staff where they would share information from journals or conferences they had attended, as well as daily education programs for patients where they learned about their care and therapy.

It was in part this characteristic that caused Dr. Michael Boninger of Squirrel Hill, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at UPMC, to recruit Dr. Brenes in 2006. Dr. Boninger brought Dr. Brenes into the university environment, where he taught residents in addition to continuing his work as a physician and researcher.

In his role as a teacher, as in his role as a colleague, father, mentor and friend, Dr. Brenes was known for modeling in life the behaviors and personal qualities he valued philosophically.

According to Dr. Berthold, "In his interviews for the residency program, he would ask to define character. Once I asked him what his definition of character was and he said, 'Character is doing the things you don't necessarily want to do, and doing them with grace.' That's just the kind of person he was."

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Brenes is survived by his wife, Diane Erdelack Brenes of Cheswick; son Ivan Brenes of Kobe, Japan; stepdaughter Leslie Erdelack of Washington, D.C.; stepson Kevin Erdelack of Cheswick; and four grandchildren.

Visitation is 2 to 9 p.m. today and Sunday. A Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Richard Catholic Church in Richland.

In lieu of flowers, donations are requested to HOPE Network, WQED or the Brenes Fund, a UPMC endowment lectureship named in his honor.

obituaries

Maggie Neil: mneil@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1280.


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