Don and Karen Cohn Give $2.5 Million to UC San Diego Health Neurosurgery Program

After experiencing a medical emergency, Don Cohn is giving back to the department that he credits with saving his life

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Don and Karen Cohn have given $2.5 million to create the Don and Karen Cohn Chancellor’s Endowed Chair in Neurosurgery at University of California San Diego School of Medicine. The gift will support excellence in research, education and clinical care in the field of neurological surgery. Alexander Khalessi, MD, neurosurgeon at UC San Diego Health, and chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery and professor of neurological surgery, radiology and neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine has been named the inaugural chair holder.

In 2017, Cohn was enjoying a vacation with family when he fell and hit his head. It wasn’t until he returned home to San Diego, however, that he became aware of a serious injury and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, or bleeding in the brain.

Typically, patients undergo open brain surgery to stop the bleeding. However, surgery was not an option for Cohn due to other medical conditions. Instead, his neurosurgical team at UC San Diego Health, led by Khalessi, suggested a new, minimally invasive approach.

Cohn was the first patient in the region and among the first nationally to receive the treatment.

“Rather than perform open surgery to drain his hematoma, we were able to navigate catheters through blood vessels to secure the bleeding source threatening his brain, a first at UC San Diego Health,” said Khalessi. “Mr. Cohn’s case demonstrates how innovative, tailored care applied to the right patient can improve upon standard-of-care treatments. More than a successful proof-of-principle case, patients like Mr. Cohn lay the foundation for real medical progress.

“I am pleased to report two large-scale, randomized clinical trials evaluating this approach for subdural hematoma are now underway.”

Cohn believes the innovative procedure is the reason he is alive today.

“As a patient whose life was saved by an innovative treatment, I learned firsthand the importance of groundbreaking research and how it translates to exceptional patient care,” said Cohn. “With this gift, I’m honored to support Dr. Khalessi and his work to advance the field of neurosurgery in hopes that we can help as many patients as possible survive brain injuries and other neurological disorders.”

In addition to the $2.5 million gift, an additional $500,000 will be provided from the UC San Diego Chancellor’s Endowed Chair Challenge. An endowed chair is one of the highest honors that an academic institution can confer upon a faculty member. It recognizes excellence in research and clinical practice.

“Endowed chairs are vital in our efforts to attract and retain leading faculty,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “The visionary support of Don and Karen Cohn will support groundbreaking work in neurological surgery and help UC San Diego remain at the forefront of discovery, education and patient care.”

Combined, these funds will help advance innovation in neurological surgery, including new medical devices, biologics and research into the underlying causes of brain diseases and disorders. The funds will also expand the collaborative infrastructure between UC San Diego Health’s Department of Neurological Surgery, Jacobs School of Engineering and the Department of Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

“Neurosurgery’s strong partnerships across the university and with established research institutes on the La Jolla mesa and the broader biotech community support unique opportunities to combine neurological research, education and innovation,” said David A. Brenner, MD, vice chancellor for health sciences at UC San Diego. “Such collaborations allow for a deeper understanding of neurological disease that makes UC San Diego a world-class environment not only for scientific discovery but also unparalleled patient care.”

“Our unique responsibility as the region’s only academic medical center provides us with the opportunity to better understand certain functions, imaging and psychology of the brain,” said Khalessi. “I feel especially responsible to leverage the assets of the entire University of California system in order to advance the treatment of neurologic disease and believe neurosurgical innovation is accomplished through such leadership.”

In October 2021, Khalessi will assume vice-presidency of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the nation’s largest academic neurosurgical society. He is a founding member of the Medical Device Innovation Consortium, which advises the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on early clinical feasibility for emerging neurovascular devices, and serves on the National Institutes of Health Interventional Advisory Panel for StrokeNet, which provides scientific oversight for federally funded research in neurovascular disease. Khalessi is also on the Board of Governors for the American College of Surgeons, and currently serves as vice chair of University of California Health’s Stroke and Cerebrovascular Consortium, encompassing all six academic health centers.

Under Khalessi’s direction, the Department of Neurological Surgery at UC San Diego Health will continue to provide the highest quality neurosurgical care, conduct groundbreaking research and educate the next generation of neurosurgical leaders. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks the neurology and neurosurgery programs at UC San Diego Health among the top 30 in the nation.

For Cohn, he is proud to have played a role in this growth as both a grateful patient and philanthropist.

“I’ve lived in San Diego since 1961 and have watched the phenomenal expansion of this city, with UC San Diego’s growth at the center,” said Cohn. “I’m so proud and grateful that UC San Diego is here for our community, and I’m happy to be a small part of it.”

“The remarkable generosity of our donors is impacting lives near and far,” said Chancellor Khosla. “Their investments in big ideas are improving health outcomes, saving lives, solving global challenges, helping underserved communities, and providing students with life-changing opportunities.”


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