Dr. Andrew Freese was a neurosurgeon and pioneer in gene therapy. The former Chief of Neurosurgery and Neurosurgical Medical Director at Brandywine Hospital passed away in 2021, but not before saving hundreds and impacting thousands of lives over his decades-long career.
“When I got shot and was sent to Albert Einstein, a doctor named Andrew Freese saved my life,” said Oronde McClain, a gun violence survivor who underwent brain surgery in 2000. A stray bullet struckMcClain in the head when he was just 10 years old, nearly killing him.
“I was supposed to be dead that night, but [Freese] worked on me for five hours and was successful,” McClain said.
He said family members told him that Freese stayed with him for nearly 48 hours after the surgery to ensure he survived. In 2021, McClain began looking through old paperwork and ran across Freese’s name. Eventually, he says he found Freese’s Facebook page and sent him a message in June of that year.
“I wanted to tell him thank you,” McClain said. “Two days later I got a message that he had died the same day I sent the message.”
Dr. Freese died of kidney failure on June 30, 2021, at a hospital in Coatesville. The discovery saddened McClain and he began researching the doctor who once saved his life.
“He didn’t just save my life, but other people and other children as well,” he said. “And I never got to tell him thank you.”
A groundbreaking neurosurgeon
Freese spent decades working in Philadelphia, breaking ground in gene therapy. He was the first to use the experimental procedure to treat Canavan disease — a rare, fatal neurodegenerative childhood disorder. In 2001, Freese operated on a three year boy with the disease, infusing healthy genes into cells to replace the defective ones, thereby extending the life expectancy, sometimes into the patient’s 20s.
“All of the patients that were treated showed improvement, which is already something incredible and exceptional when it comes to a disease that has no hope,” said Dr. Paola Leone, a professor at Rowan University. Leone specializes in neurological research and worked alongside Freese for many years. “There’s not one day that I don’t think of the things he said, the recommendation he gave me,” Leone said. “And that’s not just for me, but also for the families that he met—he was a giver.”
Those who knew Freese describe him as intelligent, compassionate, and funny, and say he had a soft spot for people and animals.
“In the operating room, when something was serious, he knew how to set that tone, but also how to calm people down and put people at ease with his humor,” said Chris Janson, associate professor at Rowan University. “I think he was a great surgeon and a great friend to me, personally.”
Janson, who worked with Freese on the gene therapy trials at Thomas Jefferson University, recalled Freese as a mentor. “He was meticulous,” said Jansen. “His character was impeccable.”
Andrew Freese, the man
“My father would have been insanely proud of Andy,” said Katherine Freese, a physics professor at the University of Texas, and Andrew’s sister.
She says Andrew was born in Boston on July 4th. Both of their parents were German scientists. Their father, Dr. Ernest Freese, was a molecular biologist who worked for the National Institutes for Health studied gene mutations. Katherine said it’s no surprise her brother followed in their father’s footsteps.
“My brother ended up with patents and did the first gene therapy in humans. That’s just mind-boggling, and important, he was ahead of his time by — I think — decades in doing that,” she said. “One person after the next said to me… ‘I’m here because of him, because of your brother.’”
Katherine Freese called her brother, the most “creative person she knew.” He was a husband and father. His son, Matt Freese, is a professional soccer player, playing 16 games for the Philadelphia Union before being traded to New York
“Andy was a hopeless romantic,” says Leone, “he got married, remarried, a beautiful woman, the woman of his dreams that brought peace and serenity and comfort and tenderness and sweetness in his life.”
Katherine remembers her brother as a hard worker.
“I’d go have Christmas with him at his house — and on Christmas Day — by the time I got up, he’d already performed two surgeries,” recalls Katherine.
Andrew Freese, a Good Soul
“If he wasn’t at work that day… if he wasn’t working late on his day off — cleaning up his notes, I wouldn’t be here,” said McClain, who is now 33.
McClain nominated Andrew Freese for the Good Souls Project and said he’s been in touch with Freese’s widow, Carolynne and family to express his gratitude.
“He didn’t even know me or what kind of condition I was in,” McClain said. “But he had the faith that he could save a child’s life and that just totally blows my mind.”
McClain hopes to do a documentary about his injuries and his fortuitous connection with Dr. Freese. He believes that the interaction changed him.
“I feel like a part of him is in me,” he said.