January 11, 2017
Dr. Kevin Kwok speaking at the Dean’s Leading by Example Lecture Series

D. Kevin Kwok, PharmD’86, advised a rapt audience in CC Little that “In order to gain control, one must first lose control.” This mantra set the tone of Dr. Kwok’s Dean’s Leading by Example Lecture Series on November 3, 2016.

Dr. Kwok received his PharmD from the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy in 1986. He currently serves the College as a member of the Dean's Advisory Committee. Throughout his career, Dr. Kwok has moved from traditional to non-traditional roles and to positions he couldn’t have anticipated.  Then came an unexpected career speedbump - Young Onset Parkinson's Disease (PD) diagnosed eight years ago.  

“Initially, I thought PD was no big deal, but increasing muscle rigidity combined with a constellation of non-motor symptoms came to a head in 2013. I feigned being ok but knew I was worsening,” remembers Dr. Kwok. “I clung to the activities that made me seem disease free, but the escalating medications were making me crawl out of my skin, relegating me to 3 hours of sleep at night, impacting my behavior, mood, and executive function and how it impacted my own career track and my close relationships.”   

Looking for another treatment option, Dr. Kwok enrolled in a research study at the Stanford Movement Disorders Center (SMDC) at Stanford University. He became the second patient put on an experimental neurotransmitter. Dr. Kwok is now treated with deep brain stimulation (DBS), an electrode implant that quiets his tremors and relieves his muscle rigidity by sending continuous pulses of electricity into motor areas of his brain. Dr. Kwok responded extremely well to the treatment, he is now happily medication free for his motor symptoms. Dr. Kwok continues to be an active research subject at SMDC, with his Adaptive DBS data being presented last year to the US Congress as part of the President’s brain mapping initiative and was featured with his Stanford neurosurgon on a Michael J Fox Foundation’s nationally broadcasted webinar on the benefits and future of DBS. 

 Podcast:  Improving Deep Brain Stimulation

While his DBS was successful, it is not a cure for Parkinsons. To further slow the progression, Dr. Kwok exercises religiously and joined Rock Steady Boxing, a program developed to help people dealing with Parkinson’s disease combat their symptoms. In a non-contact boxing class, Parkinson’s patients, or fighters as they call themselves, retrain their bodies and minds in an effort to reduce their symptoms. The program reduces physical symptoms, but also provides a support social network.  Dr. Kwok and his fellow fighters were recently featured in a KQED News report about the “fight club.” 

Dr. Kwok spoke about the wide range of roles he has occupied during his career – from pharmaceutical sales, medical liaison, business development, to consulting and executive recruiting. Three years ago Kevin left as a partner at Russell Reynolds Associates, a leading executive search firm, to join his client, Theravance Biopharma to lead Talent Acquisition and Strategy. Dr. Kwok recently transitioned to a new role at Theravance, Head of Patient Engagement. He advocated to create this role, where he will lead the company’s initiatives to foster patient centricity at every level of the organization. Dr. Kwok’s personal experience in the healthcare system made him realize the need for patient advocates and a more patient focused approach to health and he considers this the most rewarding role thus far in his thirty-year biopharma career.

“Last year, through my work with the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, I had the fortune of addressing the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) representing the Parkinson's community,” says Dr. Kwok. “As a career biopharma guy, this was the first time I participated with the FDA in this patient capacity.  It was humbling and emotional. I shared with the FDA that my priority was to slow progression and prolong my surgical benefits as long as I could. We need to treat and educate society about the constellation of non-motor Parkinson’s symptoms as well. We should recognize the shortcomings of existing medications. We need to identify patients earlier so as to really make an impact. And lastly, we should redefine the very definition and diagnosis criteria beyond motor symptoms, when intervention might be too late. I spoke of how exercise and wellbeing were buying me back life.”

“Living with PD, you often feel a loss of control and relevance,” explains Dr. Kwok. “Being allowed to present to the highest healthcare regulatory body in the country and having their focused attention was the ultimate form of control in what is often viewed as ‘well there’s no cure and nothing we can do’ world.”   

“The truth is that there is always something we can do, and this transcends PD to all of us who have any medical speed bumps in our lives,” continues Dr. Kwok. “We’re all currently dealing with our own journey, speaking out, learning more and most importantly, teaching others to destigmatize our ailments is perhaps the ultimate control. I am actively involved with the Michael J. Fox Foundation and Parkinson's Disease Foundation as a patient advisor and pleased to be on the Board of the Davis Phinney Foundation. The support of each of these groups has helped me shape the new mission with my Tribe and to regain my own control." 

Students, faculty, and staff in attendance gained a great deal from Dr. Kwok’s lecture. “I have known Kevin for over 30 years and watched him progress through his career,” says Frank Ascione, PhD, Professor of Social and Administrative Sciences, and Kevin’s PharmD advisor. “Listening to his talk gave me a great perspective on what he has accomplished in a nontraditional path.  The lesson I took from his talk is to be bold and never sell yourself short. Then, anything is possible.”

“As a student, Dr. Kwok’s inspirational story was very motivating. It was an excellent opportunity to hear someone so prominent and influential talk about his life and how his PharmD has helped foster his career,” says Victoria Facchini, P3. 

“Dr. Kwok is a testament to the fact that there are endless opportunities in pharmacy if you work hard and keep an open mind,” notes Anna Koseck, P3. "I found it inspiring how his diagnosis with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease did not slow him down but rather motivated him to move down a different career path with a new emphasis on patient care. As I begin my career in pharmacy, I hope to embrace some of the same optimism and open-mindedness that has made him such an impressive leader in our field.”