Some people consider division chief of General Medicine, Marc Berliant, M.D., to be a well-rounded person. This does not mean the boring textbook definition of “pleasingly varied or balanced,” but has the exciting connotation of “this man has stories to tell!” What do civil rights, steel mills, and the Amazon jungle all have in common? Marc Berliant.
“That’s the kind of house I grew up in”
Raised in Deerfield, IL, a suburb of Chicago, Berliant’s interest in medicine was shaped by his childhood. He grew up close with his brother and cousins. One young cousin had a brain tumor that he survived, but his health was still affected. “I was always trying to figure out how that happened. It was amazing he was able to live through it, but I also thought about how he suffered. Could I do something to make people feel better, live longer, or live with their problems in a better way?”
Berliant had always known he wanted to simply help people. His parents were focused on community involvement and advocating for civil rights. “That’s the kind of house I grew up in, you were expected to give back to the community,” Berliant said.
When he was in fourth grade, two Black families wanted to move into the neighborhood, but were blocked by the town. His parents organized a group, Citizens for Human Rights, which earned the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt. She visited Deerfield and gave a speech right from the Berliant home. “My parents stood up for what they believed in,” he said, and to this day, he carries that spirit with him.
Traditional (and not-so-traditional) medical education
Berliant’s college years were at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He started as an English and Psychology major. He then earned his M.D. from the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
During medical school, he got married and had his first child. With a family to support, he was looking for extra sources of income that could also further his education. A unique opportunity presented itself! A steel mill in Indiana had its own medical department. Berliant joined this staff to work part-time. He learned a great deal about medicine from this experience, particularly treating trauma.
He later came to Rochester for his residency in Internal Medicine here at URMC. “I just fell in love with the place. I loved the biopsychosocial model, and I also liked the collegiality.” During his residency, he enjoyed everything he studied. Being a well-rounded person, rather than pursue a fellowship in a specialty, he decided to stay general and go into practice.
From practice, to professor, to Peru
He spent over 20 years in private practice. “People don’t come in with labels. I enjoy figuring out what’s wrong from scratch.” He eventually saw the third generation of families come in. “The people that I started with were now in their 80s, I took care of their kids, now I’m seeing their grandkids. That’s a big honor to be asked to take care of family members.”
After years in practice, Berliant wanted to do more teaching. He returned to URMC as a professor of Medicine, was named division chief of General Medicine, and is also vice-chair for Clinical Programs in the department of Medicine. Today, he splits his time treating patients, fulfilling leadership duties, and teaching residents.
Several years ago, one resident from Peru told Berliant about a clinic she knew of in the Amazon. Another unique opportunity for medical education presented itself! For several years in a row, Berliant took a group of residents on a trip there.
They would start at a teaching hospital in Lima, then trek into the jungle. To reach the village, the group had to cross a river in a makeshift boat. Berliant and the residents would then treat patients in a schoolhouse, and would partner with local physicians to hand off the patients, ensuring they received continued care.
"You learn what you can do without modern technology. We had some rudimentary things available, but mostly we had to diagnose and treat based on our knowledge and clinical judgement. Residents were surprised at how much we could practice without all the technology that we're used to and still do a good job."
A family man and fisherman
Berliant married his wife, Margie, when they were 20 years old. Together they have four children, Matthew, Kate, Annie, and Emily, who in turn gave them eight grandchildren. The family loves spending time at their cottage on Keuka lake, where they bike, sail, and kayak.
Berliant sometimes shares his outdoor adventures with Paul Levy, M.D., professor of Medicine. The pair can often be found fly fishing in Montana, the Bahamas, or at local streams. “Paul and I fishing can be a bit of a comedy routine,” Berliant says. “The fish are generally safe around us, but we love being outside on the water all day.”