Local Obituaries

Trailblazing MS doctor William Sheremata dies just after drug’s FDA approval

Dr. William Sheremata’s research and clinical trials at the University of Miami’s medical school led to the FDA approval of a new drug in the fight against multiple sclerosis.
Dr. William Sheremata’s research and clinical trials at the University of Miami’s medical school led to the FDA approval of a new drug in the fight against multiple sclerosis.

Dr. William Sheremata, professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, spent 40 years leading clinical trials to find new drugs to treat multiple sclerosis, a chronic and debilitating disease that afflicts more than 400,000 Americans and some 2 million people worldwide.

MS occurs when the immune system abnormally attacks the nerves cells in the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Women between the ages of 20 and 40 are its biggest target.

After 40 years, countless studies and crushing false starts, the first drug for aggressive MS won U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval Tuesday night.

Sheremata died hours later early Wednesday morning at 82 — but not before his family and colleagues gathered at his bedside to tell him the good news. His life work, this most promising drug, “a game changer for people with MS,” according to the UM medical school, will be available to patients within two weeks.

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“Everyone was in the bedroom with him and he understood it; he was very sharp to the end,” said his wife, Dr. Leah Magel-Sheremata, an emergency medical doctor at Coral Gables Hospital. “He lived for his research. This man was made to work and loved every minute of it.”

The last words Sheremata whispered to his wife started with “Hold it together,” Magel-Sheremata said. She thought he was referring to something on his bed, the pillows perhaps. She asked him what he meant. “Everything,” he responded. “His last word was ‘everything.’”

Genentech, the manufacturer of the drug, announced that the FDA-approved Ocrevus (ocrelizumab) is the first and only medicine for both relapsing and primary progressive forms of multiple sclerosis. The majority of people with MS have a relapsing form or primary progressive MS at diagnosis. The drug is to be given every six months.

In its announcement, Genentech’s chief medical officer Dr. Sandra Horning said, “The FDA’s approval of Ocrevus is the beginning of a new era for the MS community.’’

Dr. William Sheremeta was a giant in the field of multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Ralph Sacco, chair of UM’s Department of Neurology.

Said Dr. Ralph Sacco, chair of UM’s department of neurology, “Dr. William Sheremeta was a giant in the field of multiple sclerosis with almost 40 years of service to the department. … Bill was a renowned clinician, researcher and educator. He took care of countless patients who came from around the country and educated many neurology residents and fellows who are now leaders in the field.”

Sheremata’s journey to medicine began in Alberta, Canada, on Sept. 25, 1934. He had “a million jobs” before he earned his degrees in zoology in 1955 and, in 1959, medicine from the University of Alberta. “Million” may be an exaggeration on his wife’s part — but perhaps not.

Sheremata, born to parents who were both educators — his father taught math and was a school principal, his mother taught English, Greek and Latin — started building houses with his uncle when he was 12. He worked in a meat-packing plant, sold ice cream and dug ditches. He even was a lumberjack — before serving as a captain in the Canadian Army.

“He said the one he liked best was digging ditches,” Magel-Sheremata said. “He said it made him feel strong. He liked being out in the weather and said the best thing was you got to see people in so many different occupations and problems and stages in life that it gives you an eye into people’s personalities. He thought it very important to understand people in great depth.”

His even-tempered, quiet humored presence was something I always adored. He taught us to work hard and never give up, and he told me that he learned so much from all the various jobs that he had from youth on.

Daughter Shelley Hammond.

Daughter Shelley Hammond, a health communications specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, agrees. “In his image, I’ve had 23 jobs, including internships and part-time gigs, to date. I agree with him that hard work and varied work helps us understand those around us and keeps us on our toes and active and thoughtful.”

Sheremata never stopped reading, his wife said. She recalled their courtship when he’d pick up a medical journal and commit nearly everything he read to memory.

“He could quote The Lancet from 1966. I don’t understand how people can do that,” she marveled. “I’ll read a journal one day and forget the next day who wrote it.” Retirement would have been anathema to him, she said. One of his favorite lines was, “If you’re not learning, you’re forgetting.”

In 1971, Sheremata joined McGill University in Montreal as a lecturer in neurology and became an assistant professor at the renowned school; simultaneously, he served as director of neurology at St. Mary’s Hospital in Montreal. He left the two schools in 1977 for the University of Miami, lured by research opportunities in the States.

At UM, he was a professor of neurology and founded the Multiple Sclerosis Center of Excellence. The medical school is raising funds to carry out Sheremata’s vision of creating a comprehensive MS center on campus that will be named for him.

“Since joining our medical school in 1977, Dr. Sheremata has been a distinguished educator, clinician and researcher,” said Dr. Laurence B. Gardner, interim dean of the Miller School of Medicine. “He will be greatly missed by our entire Miller School family.”

Sheremata also loved classical music and the opera and, of course, family.

“The image that sticks most in my mind was riding in the back of the car to my wedding,” his daughter Summer Sheremata said. “I was an hour late and worrying about getting to the chapel. My dad was so calm, smiling ear to ear. I realized that I was still wearing my engagement ring and didn’t know where to put it. When my dad said to give it to him, I thought he would put it in his pocket, but instead he slid it onto the tip of his pinky. He held my hand the rest of the way and when we walked down the aisle he was wearing that ring.”

Sheremata’s survivors include his grandchildren Kensie Angeline Hammond and Liam David Sheremata. From a previous marriage, he also has children Willow Ann, Thomas Mark, Alden Charles, Tamara Wynne, Jonathan David and Megan Bernice Sheremata; and three grandchildren Islay Campbell, Johnny MacMillan and Hugo Cooper.

Services will be at 2 p.m. April 11 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 5690 SW 88th St., Coral Gables.

This obituary was updated to include family members from a previous marriage and military service.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen