South Florida Real Estate Leader Stephen Bittel Advances Progress in Parkinson’s Disease Research with $1 Million Donation

Stephen Bittel has never been one to sit idly by. A fixture in the South Florida community, Bittel has gained a reputation over the years for being a bold man of action, embodying the old …


Stephen Bittel has never been one to sit idly by. A fixture in the South Florida community, Bittel has gained a reputation over the years for being a bold man of action, embodying the old adage “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” From rehabilitating and transforming core downtown areas through his commercial real estate firm Terranova Corporation to his diverse involvement in organizations such as Achieve Miami and the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, when Bittel sees a problem that needs fixing, he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.

For this reason, while the number itself is inspiring, nobody who knows or has heard of Stephen Bittel would be the least surprised to learn about his latest endeavor: a donation of $1 million to the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Movement Disorders Division in the Department of Neurology, to be used toward research into a cure for Parkinson’s disease and improve developments in patient care.

Parkinson’s is a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement and often causes tremors. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, there are nearly 1 million people in the United States currently living with Parkinson’s disease. After Alzheimer’s disease it is the most common neurodegenerative disease, and a study conducted by the foundation has found that in less than a decade the number of people with it will surpass 1.2 million.

While rehabilitation can help improve functioning and quality of life for people with Parkinson’s, there is currently no cure for the disease. Furthermore, the treatments that are available often create significant financial burdens for those affected, with medications alone costing an average of $2,500 a year and therapeutic surgery costing upwards of $100,000 per person.

While Bittel views projects that research the treatment and care of Parkinson’s as vital and has himself provided funding for several, his penchant for aiming higher has seen him set his sights on aiding the development of a cure for the disease itself.

A personal cause

Bittel’s involvement with Parkinson’s research began when his company’s longtime president, Mindy McIlroy, was diagnosed with the disease almost a decade ago. Mindy, who began her career with Terranova as an executive assistant in 1997, had worked her way to one of the top leadership positions for the company, and the discovery came as something of a shock to both her and Bittel.

Without a second thought, Bittel immediately connected Mindy with his friend John Kozyak, who was chair of the board of directors at the Parkinson’s Foundation. Kozyak in turn set her up with some of the top neurologists in the field, and a treatment plan was devised to help her manage the progress of the disease. From that point onward, both McIlroy and Bittel have become deeply involved in the organization, and by extension so has their business Terranova.

In 2014 at the Parkinson’s Foundation’s annual fundraising walk “Moving Day Miami,” Team Terranova was the first in the nonprofit’s history to raise over $100,000 during the event due to Bittel’s pledge to match every dollar his team raised, pushing the one day total over $500,000 for the highest team level before or since.

Since then, Bittel has continued to make a number of personal donations to the organization, including a $450,000 donation to support the expansion of the foundation’s Centers of Excellence network. There are currently 34 medical centers in the United States that have been designated a Center of Excellence by the Parkinson’s Foundation, indicating they meet a high standard when it comes to medical and other support services related to Parkinson’s disease.

Ramping up efforts

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Movement Disorders Division received designation as a Center of Excellence from the Parkinson’s Foundation in 2007, and through his seven-figure donation Bittel hopes the medical center will be able to make significant advancements in finding a cure for the disease once and for all.

In an interview with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine regarding the donation, Bittel said that it was during his attendance of a Center of Excellence naming ceremony that he realized he wanted to go further in the fight against Parkinson’s disease. In his view, rather than placing a heavy focus on diagnosis and care, a true difference could only be made by increasing efforts toward understanding and curing the disease once and for all.

Bittel also said that while in recent years there have been significant developments in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease such as deep brain stimulation and high-intensity focused ultrasounds, ultimately the same three medications are being used that were available half a century ago. Because therapeutics are ultimately focused on symptoms rather than cause, Bittel decided to make his gift to the Movement Disorders Division as a way to push for research that will advance a cure.

Most of the $1 million donated by Bittel will be used to create the Movement Disorders Clinical and Research Support Fund, which has been earmarked to support a clinical position and a research position with the hiring of a bioengineer and a patient navigator. Administration of the funds will be performed by the chief of the Movement Disorders Division Ihtsham Haq, M.D., who told the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine that he was “deeply grateful” to Bittel and saw him as a vital partner with a shared vision. He said that while the medical center has already been working on research that has the ability to transform the understanding and treatment of Parkinson’s disease, Bittel and his donation has pushed the team to go further and pursue ideas that previously seemed infeasible.

While the majority of Bittel’s donation will go to the Movement Disorders Clinical and Research Support Fund, a portion of it will also be going toward the establishment of the Stephen H. Bittel Fellowship in Movement Disorders. Awarded annually to a physician who is pursuing subspecialty training in movement disorders, together these programs will further the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s goals and establish it as one of the top innovators in Parkinson’s disease research and care.

Born and raised in Miami, Bittel has had a deep connection with the city. In addition to attending the public school system and getting his law degree from the University of Miami, Bittel founded and built his company from the ground up in South Florida. He considers it an added bonus that his funding could potentially see the cause and cure for Parkinson’s disease be discovered in his hometown.

According to Bittel, his recent donation by no means signifies the end of his active involvement in the fight against Parkinson’s disease. Waiting with his fingers crossed has never been a viable option for Bittel, and he told the publication for the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine that “It’s time to stop hoping and start acting.” They say that progress is driven by the few, and Bittel’s work clearly shows he intends to be one of them.

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