Looking Back…Moving Forward: It’s About Relationships

As we continue our interview series commemorating our 30th anniversary, this week we sit down with a member of our board who has also been involved with HA since the early 1990’s. Ralph Kistler has served on the HA Board of Directors since 2002. Prior to joining the board , he was Vice President of Sales at Medtronic Neurosurgery. He has 45 years in the medical device business and, within that 45 year time period, 25 plus years working within the medical neurosurgery field.

HA: Who was the first person you met at HA and what was your first impression?

RALPH: The first person I met at HA was Emily Fudge. She thanked me for my support, and I was instantly hooked. She and Russell remain close friends. She’s magic, and I instantly knew that any money I could dredge up to support HA was money well spent.

HA: When you say “she’s magic,” how so?

RALPH: We initially met at a neurosurgical meeting. I was Vice President of Sales at PS Medical (now Medtronic) and at the time I had a discretionary budget that I oversaw. It wasn’t a huge amount and most of it went to support neurosurgical meetings. The American Association of Neurosurgical Surgeons’(AANS) Pediatric section was just forming and I also supported events such as the International Society for Pediatric Neurosurgery (ISPN) opening reception. As I started getting more closely involved, I naturally became closer to the people involved. For me, it became more than just spending money to support guys having a better meeting.

I was invited to attend the HA conference in Monterrey, California in 1993. I had previously supported HA through my discretionary budget. When I walked in, I saw Emily. She said she hoped I would enjoy the conference. And I did. Except for in the operating room, I hadn’t met many patients. I was struck by the way the kids, in particular, were affected by hydrocephalus. I was struck by how courageous and positive everyone was. I knew it was important to support HA. After I retired, Emily asked me to join the HA board.

HA: Emily and Cynthia had a vision to bring the three stakeholders of the hydrocephalus community together – the patients, the medical professionals, and industry. How has the relationship between industry and HA developed over the years?

RALPH: This is a complicated question. When I joined the board in 2002, there was a slot for an industry representative to represent all of the shunt manufacturers. Before me, Marvin Sussman had served in that capacity when he was with NMT Medical (now Integra LifeSciences Corporation). Debbie Bottomley with Codman was also a member of board, though not in the industry representative position. In my time on the board, I have spent a lot of time talking to people in other companies. I’ve had very productive meetings with people who, in the past, had been competitors. We are all working for HA and the patients.

Over the years, the companies have changed, as has the HA Board. In the early days, we were a smaller board. We did a good job. There was a lot of camaraderie and a great team effort. Now the board has evolved into a more structured and professional group of committed individuals. The companies have evolved, too. PS Medical was purchased by Medtronic, Inc., a much larger company with a different structure and culture. With incredible support from Leanne Lintula (Senior Product Manager, Hydrocephalus), however, we have been able to continue to provide financial support for HA and continue to maintain a strong presence for hydrocephalus and hydrocephalus patients within the company.

HA: What has your involvement with HA meant to you? Why do you stay involved?

RALPH: I was passionate about the products we offered, and, while seeing great success, I realized over time, through my interactions with patients at HA conferences and events, that it wasn’t enough, and that shunts were a moderate (at best) answer to an incredibly complex problem. I came to the realization, and still believe, that there’s a better answer.

Being involved with HA allowed me to do something constructive to give back to the community. I made a living selling products to pediatric neurosurgeons. I developed close relationships with the doctors. Lots of ideas came from the neurosurgeons and in my position I was able to channel their ideas back to PS Medical about how to improve the shunts or ways to assist them so that they could do their jobs better.

HA: What is the most funny or touching memory you have from over the years?

Ralph helping 12 year old Gabi Montes Garzon build a shunt at the National Conference in Bethesda, MD, June 2012

RALPH: I have developed some wonderful relationships with members over the years. Every conference, I look forward to seeing Robin Ennis and her mother. It’s always a special moment to be with her again. I have also developed a nice friendship with our board member John Lawrence’s son, Elijah. We met and instantly hit it off. At my age, it’s a kick to have a great kid like that as a friend. I have met so many HA members over the years who have had a real impact on me. The memories are many and there have been a lot of laughs. But my most poignant memories are, unfortunately, sad ones, several dealing with the departures of Staff and Board members about whom I cared greatly (and still do).

HA: Of all the work HA does for the hydrocephalus community, which do you find to be the most important or impactful?

RALPH: I think it is support, but I hope that advocacy, education and research enjoy increasing roles in our success. But I have seen what our support means to people who have never even heard of hydrocephalus and then they give birth to a child with the condition. They feel like they’re all alone and that this has happened to only them. Then they call and realize there is this support group that has information, that has awareness of the condition, and that connects them to other people in the same situation that they can relate to. It has made a world of difference to a ton of people. This impact has always resonated with me as I have always considered myself more of a people person than anything else.

HA: What else would you like to see HA do?

RALPH: Find a cure.

HA: Where would you like to see HA 5 years from now?

RALPH: In a more important role in government, and dealing with a public that knows a great deal more about hydrocephalus.

HA: What message do you have for individuals living with hydrocephalus or their family/caregivers?

RALPH: I have met hundreds of patients and family members, mostly at the conferences. I remain convinced that they are the bravest, most positive, most resilient people I have ever met. I hope I am able to live up to their trust, both in me and HA.

HA: What message do you have for the general public about our association or about people who live with hydrocephalus?

RALPH: Get aware of hydrocephalus, and the awful way it impacts babies, families, senior citizens and those who develop the condition from trauma. We CAN find an answer.

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