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Obituary: Harvey Birsner

Digre, Kathleen MD; Imes, Richard MD; Hoyt, William MD

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Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology: December 2013 - Volume 33 - Issue 4 - p e21
doi: 10.1097/WNO.0000000000000067
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On May 25, 2013, the doors of the Santa Monica Drive-Thru Brain Surgery Center in Santa Monica, CA, closed forever. Its resident neurosurgeon, Dr Harvey Birsner, passed away on that date, and the North American Neuro-ophthalmology Society (NANOS) lost one of its only neurosurgeon members and Fellows.

Harvey Birsner was born in San Francisco on February 24, 1941, to Harry Mackler and Helen Nicholson Mackler. He was raised in Bakersfield, CA, and graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1958. In high school, Harvey was voted “least likely to succeed.”

Harvey attended Bakersfield Junior College and San Francisco State College. He received his medical degree from the University of California San Francisco in 1965 and started postgraduate neurosurgical training at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, TX. Part way through his residency, Harvey received a letter from the United States Government directing him to report for active duty, and he subsequently served 2 years as the Chief of Neurosurgery at Naval Hospital, Philadelphia. While on active duty, Harvey decided that he wanted to do a neuro-ophthalmology fellowship with William Hoyt. Dr Hoyt accepted him with the stipulation that he read Walsh & Hoyt's textbook in its entirety before starting. Harvey did and from 1970 to 1971 he was a neuro-ophthalmology Fellow at UCSF alongside Myles Behrens and Ernesto Rios-Montenegro. Dr Hoyt said that Harvey was the only neurosurgeon in the United States who could identify the retinal nerve fiber layer with an ophthalmoscope.

After finishing his neurosurgical training at Parkland Hospital in 1972, Harvey arrived in Antelope Valley (AV), California. He was AV's first neurosurgeon and served on the medical staff of each of the Valley's hospitals. He was elected to various positions including Chief of Surgery and Chief of Medical Staff at AV Hospital. In addition to multiple medical staff appointments, he was a Trustee of the Antelope Valley Healthcare District between the years 1980 and 1996. He served in various capacities including board Chairman.

Harvey married Donna Harris in 1974. After Harvey and Donna retired, they moved to Park City, UT, in 1997 to pursue their love of skiing and travel. At last count, Harvey and Donna had visited 83 countries, always in style. While living in Park City, Harvey regularly attended grand rounds in neurosurgery at the University of Utah—and pushed the neurosurgeons to use their ophthalmoscopes and report the results of their patients' visual acuities and fields. Harvey prided himself in being a thinking neurosurgeon.

Harvey Birsner had been a fellow of NANOS since 2001. He was recently remembered by the then Chief of Neurosurgery at the University of Utah as “the Utah version of William Hoyt.” We suspect that Harvey was quite proud of that comparison. Dr Hoyt was his mentor and his friend, and Harvey regularly hosted a dinner for him and a few close friends at the annual NANOS meeting. The only stipulation for the guests was that they endure Harvey's barbs, which were effusive but clearly came from his heart.

Harvey faced his final illness of cholangiocarcinoma in typical Harvey fashion. He declined chemotherapy after the first dose made him too ill. Instead of chemotherapy, he ordered a case of his favorite wine, dined and entertained life-long friends, emailed everyone, and then finally passed away with Donna at his side.

Harvey was preceded in death by his parents and his adoptive father, Dr J. W. Birsner. In addition to Donna, Harvey is survived by his 2 sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret, his brother, John, who is a practicing physician in AV, and, of course, his neuro-ophthalmology colleagues.

© 2013 by North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society