Rochester Medicine

Brad Berk: The Next Big Adventure

Oct. 28, 2014

Perhaps, Brad Berk thought, a subtlety in meaning had been lost in translation.  He was on a business trip to South Korea, and was being interviewed by two Korean newspaper reporters.  Their final question caught him by surprise.  Berk turned to the young physician who was serving as an interpreter and asked if he had made a mistake.

“No, that is very important to people in this country.  It is a common question here,” the physician assured him, before bluntly repeating it.  “What will people say about you when you are dead?”

Berk, who is generally very accommodating during media interviews, did not have a ready answer.  He appealed to his personal assistant, Harley Bowman, for help.  Bowman has been a fixture at Berk’s side since 2010.  Though naturally gregarious, he possesses the loyalty and discretion of an old-fashioned English butler, and he takes pride in rarely speaking while on duty.  This time, he made an exception.

 “I told the journalists that people will remember the miracle that takes place in a hospital room, when a patient is this close to giving up,” Bowman says, his voice trembling ever-so-slightly with emotion. “The doctors have done all they can do.  Technology and medicines aren’t going to help any more.  All that is left is that last bit of the patient’s will.”

Then, Bowman continues, Dr. Berk comes into the room.

“And Dr. Berk says, ‘Don’t…give…up.’”

Time and again, these patients, who have been afflicted with devastating physical disabilities, say they will vividly remember this moment for the rest of their lives.  Months later, they often return to thank Berk for using those three words to pull them away from the abyss.  But the words would be far less potent if they were not spoken by a man who has been there himself, and adamantly refused to stay.

Brad Berk on Bicycle

To Bradford C. Berk (MD ’81, PhD ’81), life is a grand series of adventures.  Every experience is an opportunity for discovery.  And yes, that includes the 2009 bicycle accident that paralyzed his body and left a lifetime of pain as its calling card.  His only real relief comes through self-hypnosis, which he takes time to practice every night.

“That has helped me develop patience with myself and others,” Berk says.  “And it has reaffirmed the control we can have over ourselves in all kinds of difficult situations.”

Those closest to Berk say the past five years have not changed him so much as they have epitomized his true nature.  The qualities that earned him the position of CEO and senior vice president for Health Sciences at the University of Rochester Medical Center in 2006 are the same qualities that have led to his remarkable and ongoing recovery.

“I think others see him as softer now, ” Mark B. Taubman, MD, dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry and incoming CEO, says, “but he’s the same person.  His optimism, enthusiasm, perseverance, intelligence, strategic ability, outgoing personality, and astonishingly broad array of interests -- none of that has changed.”

The CEO, Before and After

When Berk first took leadership of the URMC, there was little to indicate the challenges he would soon face, both personally and professionally.  Propelled into the CEO’s office after successfully chairing the Department of Medicine, serving as chief of Cardiology, and founding and directing the Aab Cardiovascular Research Institute, Berk seemed to be living a charmed life.  A Rochester native, he spent much of his idyllic youth exploring the woods, fields, and waterways at the edge of his family’s suburban neighborhood.   He shied away from Vietnam-era unrest on large campuses, choosing the rural serenity of Amherst College instead.  He began his cardiovascular research career in the early 1980s, catching an exhilarating wave of new devices and drugs that transformed the field and dramatically reduced the mortality rate for heart attack patients.  His research success was matched by his clinical prowess, and he excelled on the faculties of Harvard Medical School, Emory University, and the University of Washington before returning to Rochester.  Sandy-haired, athletic, and perpetually tan, he frequently spent his spare time at professional meetings climbing the closest mountain.

“He had an unvarnished enthusiasm and energy, and a proven ability to get things done,” says University of Rochester President Joel Seligman, who chaired the nationwide search that resulted in Berk’s appointment as CEO. “What really made him stand out from the other applicants, though, was his mind.”

Berk’s mind is, well, sort of mind-boggling.   An incessant reader and well-traveled, he retains a vast store of expertise on countless subjects.  Beyond that, however, his colleagues consider him to be a habitual “big thinker.” Twisting and turning ideas or problems around in his head like Rubik’s Cubes, he looks for all possible short- and long-term influences and outcomes before settling on a course of action.  He typically does this with uncanny speed, and then he conveys his thoughts in a verbal outline, concisely stating his position along with a list of major discussion points.  He often sums it up with a well-known idiom or familiar quote, benignly making sure everyone in the room is keeping up with him.

“He can see a whole entity and its separate parts better than anyone I know,” Seligman says, “and he has an impressive understanding of the critical balance between clinical care and research at an academic medical center.  Tilt the scale too much one way or the other, and the whole thing can falter.”

As Berk was beginning to establish himself as CEO, however, a storm was brewing.  On the leading edge was that fateful bike ride, but it was soon followed by a downpour of other pressures:  the lingering effects of a recession; the snowballing impact of lower, inflation-adjusted research funding from the National Institutes of Health; federal and state pressure to bend the health care cost curve; and the Affordable Care Act.

“This is one of the most tumultuous and challenging times for academic medicine,” Philip A. Pizzo (MD ’70), a member of the University’s board of trustees, says.

“Just as Dr. Berk was starting to recover,” Seligman agrees, “his job was simultaneously becoming more challenging.”

There were people who questioned whether it was good for the URMC – or Berk – for him to return as CEO nine months after he had been airlifted here with a fractured third vertebra.   The risks of infection and other very common side effects of paralysis could hinder his ability to get things done; the chronic pain would undoubtedly put limits on his energy.  But Berk’s mind was fully functioning, and the general consensus was, If anyone can make this work, Brad can.

And Berk has proven them right.

“It’s about vision, you have to have a compelling vision that resonates with everyone,” Berk says. “After that, you only need two things to be a good CEO.  One, you need to have the right people around you.  Two, you need to know the right way to spend your time.”

With that in mind, he charged forward.  Under his leadership, the Medical Center has undergone a prodigious expansion through regional affiliations, acquisitions, and partnerships, as well as on-campus construction.  The Medical Center’s largest construction project ever, the $145 million Golisano Children’s Hospital, will open in the spring.  The $65 million Wilmot Cancer Center opened at Strong Memorial Hospital in 2008. In addition, Berk has overseen the development of a number of initiatives, including the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Eastman Institute for Oral Health, and the Center for Experiential Learning, as well as nearly $1 billion in capital and information technology upgrades.   When Berk and his top strategists get together, there is an almost war room-like intensity in the air.

But along with buildings, programs, and beds, the URMC has been steadily adding people; the University, primarily because of the Medical Center’s nineteen thousand hires, remains the top employer in Rochester after bumping Eastman Kodak Company just before Berk became CEO.   This is where the softer side of Berk has become more palpable since his injury.  Suddenly thrust into a place where he had to rely on everyone, to do nearly everything, the glare from his hard-core independent spirit mellowed enough for him to see his fellow human beings in a way most of us never will.  With this new perspective, he returned to the Medical Center determined to change the culture within.

“Everybody here is compassionate, that is why they are in this business,” he says, “but we had service issues.”

As he publicly shared his personal experiences with the “healing power of human touch,” the Medical Center began collecting data, organizing employee committees to gather their input, and empowering more people to make positive changes. The URMC laid out its “ICARE” values (Integrity, Compassion, Accountability, Respect, and Excellence) and provided training and recognition to help employees incorporate these values into their daily activities.  A polished, tug-at-the-heartstrings, external marketing campaign, “Medicine of the Highest Order,” served the dual purpose of instilling pride in the people who work here.  Under Berk’s watch, patient- and family-centered care became central to all other initiatives.

“This is my proudest accomplishment as CEO,” Berk says.

The University of Rochester Neurorestoration Institute

Berk is a fast driver.  It’s common to see him whizzing down the halls of the hospital in his motorized wheelchair, his personal assistant, Harley Bowman, struggling to catch up.

“We’ve become a kind of symbol,” Berk laughs.  “We make a point of getting out and talking to people, seeing patients and families, being attentive.  It’s leading by example.”

What most people don’t see, however, are the times Bowman quietly glides into the board room to stretch Berk’s arms and apply heat packs to ease his painful muscle contractions.  They don’t see Bowman helping Berk into the standing frame in his office, which is intended to help keep his bones from becoming weak and brittle.  They don’t see the numerous medications that keep an ominous batch of side effects at bay, and they don’t hear the pain-induced exhaustion in his voice when there’s a rare quiet moment to his day.  They don’t see his frustration, which sometimes leads to brief bursts of anger and depression.

“It’s common for people to say this is the ‘new’ normal,” Berk says.  “But we shouldn’t be getting used to a new normal.  We should be working toward normal.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Berk is leaving his post to begin the University of Rochester Neurorestoration Institute (URNI).

“Rehab has been stuck for a long time now, with little innovation, but that’s changing,” Berk says. “We’re on the cusp of dramatic change in the field, similar to the one that occurred in cardiology twenty years ago. There are new devices and drugs emerging, and advances in stem cell research are promising.”

He envisions a place that provides state-of-the-art therapies to restore nervous system function to people who have suffered a stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, or peripheral nerve damage.  Building on existing strengths of the Medical Center’s Del Monte Neuromedicine Institute and resources on River Campus, the RNI will conduct basic research in neurorestoration and facilitate a translational pipeline to clinical settings.  In addition, there will be clinical trials, educational programs, and community outreach.

“He was talking about the RNI two months after his accident.  He understood this was a way we could be unique,” says Taubman.  “As CEO, you have to think about what makes the Medical Center, the University, and the City of Rochester special.  Which of our programs can be regional or national destinations?  What can we build that not everybody can build?”

Taubman says the RNI could answer those questions and, if anyone can make it happen, “Brad can.”

“If we are going to do this in a way that, in five or ten years, people are going to think of Rochester as the place to go for neurorestoration, we need somebody who has his skills, level of involvement, enthusiasm, and passion.”

Back in the Saddle

“Not too long ago, I couldn’t have passed her,” Berk says with a smile.

He has just pedaled by an elderly woman who is taking a leisurely bike ride along the Erie Canal Trailway.  Berk is half-joking; there’s an unmistakable note of achievement as well.  It is a sublime September morning, colorful leaves crunching under the wheels of his recumbent bicycle, the dewy smell of autumn carried on a cool breeze.  The wind mitigates the hot sun on his face.  Berk points out the fields he used to play in as a boy, and the bridge he and his friends would leap off on sultry, summer days.  He is undeniably happy.

Though he cannot feel his legs, his mind has roused the muscle memory that once carried him for long rides through the hills of the Finger Lakes.  Every weekend, Berk is out here, flanked by a dedicated group of friends who offer up an occasional Powerade or help navigating busy street crossings.  It is highly probable that passersby have no idea he cannot walk.  At the end of the ride, he’s met by Coral L. Surgeon, MD, the woman he will marry at the end of October.

“I don’t think he feels handicapped,” she says, as if trying to remember the last time Berk used the word to describe himself.  “Who knows what his limits are?  He never gives up.”

Surgeon and Berk are combining households; her small frame is towered by stacks of boxes throughout their newly renovated home.  There’s space here for visitors – including his three children and four lively grandsons or any one of her seven siblings or twenty-three nieces and nephews.  Berk is eager to move his potted herbs out to the deck so Surgeon can make one of her spice rubs, his favorite.

“Whenever we can, we spend our evenings together.  A glass of wine, some jazz on the Sonos, dinner,” Surgeon says, in a warm voice that reveals her Jamaican roots. Sometimes, if there’s a full moon, Bowman will alert Berk with a text, knowing he’ll want to go outside to see it.  At times like these, it is easy to believe “normal” could be just around the bend.