Dr. Richard Gacek ’52 remembers the exact moment that his life changed.
It was the summer of 1948, he had just graduated from high school, and he was working a summer job on the Erie Railroad in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. The son of a railroad worker, Gacek was mulling over what his next move would be: sticking with the railroad job or accepting one of the partial scholarship offers he had from local colleges.
But one afternoon that summer, he got a card in the mail that made the decision clear.
“It was from the Notre Dame Club of Buffalo. They offered me a four-year, full scholarship,” Gacek recalls. “I was completely surprised, because I didn’t know that was in the offing. My homeroom school teacher entered my name (without telling me). I had never been to Notre Dame but, of course, I had heard of it. I just knew I was gonna do it.”
Gacek finished his summer job, then boarded one of those same Erie Railroad cars in Buffalo to travel to Notre Dame, where he majored in preprofessional studies, worked at the dining hall, and joined the weightlifting club. He won the Mr. Notre Dame Award twice for besting all his fellow weightlifters in their annual competition.
Gacek went on to become an otolaryngologist — a head and neck surgeon — as well as a leading expert in Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that can cause vertigo and hearing loss. Today, as he approaches his 90th birthday, Gacek is readying to publish his third book, which details his discovery of the viral cause of Meniere’s disease.
“It absolutely changed my life. If I had to put my finger on one thing that is most influential in determining my life path, that (scholarship) is it,” says Gacek. “If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college and wouldn’t have gone to medical school, or had the number of publications that I had that were the first of their kind.”
Gacek discovered his interest in the nervous system and its impact on the brain early in medical school at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and got involved in research opportunities, which led to a research position at the National Institutes of Health before his otolaryngology training. As a head and neck surgeon, he has operated on patients with Bell’s palsy facial paralysis and other facial nerve disorders, as well as head, neck, and throat tumors.
But it is Meniere’s disease that became his specialty. The cause of Meniere’s was either unknown, or attributed to fluid in the inner ear, but Gacek says his research proves otherwise.
“Meniere’s disease is caused by a herpes virus, the virus that causes cold sores. The virus is airborne and comes in through your nose and mouth. Depending on the makeup of your cells, the virus can hook up into the nerve cell and stay there and hibernate for years. Your immune system holds it in check, but as you get older your immune system is weaker, which allows the virus to cause dizziness and hearing loss,” Gacek says.
Gacek has helped patients with Meniere’s regulate their vertigo symptoms and regain their hearing with medication that targets the virus, rather than surgery. He performed the surgery successfully for decades, but maintains that it is more of a risk for patients. The surgery requires cutting a nerve in the ear that maintains balance, which relieves the vertigo but could lead to more balance problems and hearing loss in the future. With medication, 90 percent of his Meniere’s patients can control their vertigo, Gacek says, and about half of his patients regain their normal hearing.
During his career, Gacek practiced in Buffalo and Syracuse, New York, and alongside his son, fellow otolaryngologist Dr. Mark Gacek ’83, in Alabama. He had multiple stints at Harvard in Boston and the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, where he now lives with his wife, Elaine. The Gaceks are parents of four and grandparents of eight, several of whom are Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College graduates.
And after 64 years of practicing medicine and more than 260 research publications to his name, Gacek shows no signs of slowing down. He says his work still brings him joy.
“I consider it almost my hobby,” Gacek says. “I just love looking at slides and making diagnoses and all these things. It gives me my relaxation, so to speak. In fact, I have a couple other projects in mind already.”
Next up? He wants to publish more research on how the virus that causes Meniere’s manifests the hearing loss symptoms of the disease, and to make the final edits on his third book, which will be published later this year.