“I felt that Eddie was going to be pretty special from the get-go,” says Neal Futran, M.D., DMD, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.
“Eddie was a true triple-threat in academic medicine — excellent in patient care, research and teaching,” says Futran, who holds the Allison T. Wanamaker Endowed Professorship in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. “He was an outstanding physician and surgeon, his patients loved him, and he was a great scientist.”
Eduardo Méndez, M.D., M.S., a UW professor in Futran’s department, died in January 2018 after a battle with cancer. Colleagues and patients alike still feel the loss deeply. His legacy, though, will live on, says Futran, through several fellowships and endowments dedicated to improving head and neck cancer care — exactly what Dr. Méndez would have wanted.
Born in Puerto Rico, Dr. Méndez completed a residency in otolaryngology, followed by a head and neck oncology and microvascular reconstruction fellowship, at UW Medicine. During his residency, his research on the genetic fingerprints of oral cancers using microarray technology resulted in a grant that, in turn, led to the development of a basic science program in head and neck cancer.
Dr. Méndez became an assistant professor in 2006, rising up the ranks to professor in 2018. He was co-director of UW Medicine’s Head and Neck Oncology Program, director of UW Medicine’s Advanced Head and Neck Surgical Oncology Fellowship, and director of the Head and Neck Translational Research Program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Dr. Méndez was the first surgeon in the Pacific Northwest to perform minimally invasive robotic surgery for oropharyngeal cancer. (“He loved that surgical robot!” Futran recalls.) He was also a skilled researcher, and he had recently completed a successful phase I clinical trial of the WEE-1 inhibitor that showed definitive results in reducing or eliminating oral cancers.
Dr. Méndez was recognized posthumously for his achievements by the American Head and Neck Society (AHNS), who presented his family with a special presidential citation at its annual meeting in April. In addition, the AHNS diversity task force, which Dr. Méndez co-chaired, has named a new diversity summer fellowship in his honor, and one of its pilot research grants will also be named after him.
As dedicated as he was to his work, Dr. Méndez was keenly aware of the sacrifices that come with such a demanding career.
“Because he worked so much and his wife is also a scientist, having the time to be a family and do the simple things in life were more special than anything else to him,” says Futran. “He loved being with his daughters — playing tennis, kicking the soccer ball and spending time with them.”
In memory of his colleague and friend, Futran and his wife, Margi, established the Eduardo Méndez Endowment for Otolaryngology. The endowment will support all aspects of head and neck cancer care, with the goals of developing better therapies and improving patient outcomes.
“Eddie made such incredible discoveries in the short time we had with him,” says Futran. “We want to not only build on those discoveries, but provide the same opportunities for other promising individuals. This endowment is how he wanted to be remembered, and it’s also a way to inspire others to continue the work in head and neck cancer.”