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Spotlight: Mary McNish Rheumatoid Arthritis Research Fund

Mary McNish was born November 11, 1910. At the time, her family had no way of knowing that 28 years later the U.S. Congress would declare the 11th day of the 11th month a national holiday. It would then take another 16 years before her birthday would officially become known as Veterans Day. As fate would have it, Mary’s son, Tom McNish, MD 78M, grew up to be a veteran of the Vietnam War—and a national hero.

Mrs. McNish led a very active life. A nurse by training, she put her career aside to raise her son on a small working farm in the mountains of North Carolina. In the early 1960s, things began to change. After her husband passed away, she started to become easily fatigued. Then, her joints began to swell, stiffen, and ache. There was only one conculusion: She had rheumatoid arthritis or RA.

Dr. McNish was deeply affected by his mother’s health. He watched an “extremely active and hardworking” woman slowly lose her independence and suffer from both the symptoms of RA and the side effects of its treatment. This moved him to start the Mary McNish Rheumatoid Arthritis Research Fund in 1975 while he was still a student at the Emory SOM. The Fund continues to support junior faculty in the Division of Rheumatology and has been instrumental in helping modest pilot programs blossom into full-fledged clinical research studies.

Christina Drenkard, MD, PhD, and Athan Tiliakos, MD, Assistant Professors in the Division of Rheumatology, are two recent recipients of McNish funding. Although they work independently, both Drs. Drenkard and Tiliakos are interested in how socioeconomic status affects the treatment and prognosis of underserved populations living with rheumatologic conditions.

Dr. Drenkard believes her work “will be beneficial to a large community of patients with related conditions” who are typically at risk for very poor outcomes.

While serving as an Air Force pilot in the Vietnam War, Dr. McNish was shot down over Thailand and held as a prisoner of war for three years. When he returned in 1973, his mother was confined to a wheelchair. She was “a woman who could do anything, drive anything—even climb mountains,” he said. “Her wheelchair was as much a prison to her as my bars in Vietnam.”

To this day, Dr. McNish gives to the Fund in the hopes that it will “help find ways to bring relief” to those living with RA and other rheumatologic conditions and “please, God, someday find a cure.”