When E. Brooke Lerner was referred to an area hospital in May, she didn’t expect to hear the devastating diagnosis from doctors: She had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
For Lerner, a professor and vice chair of research at the University of Buffalo Department of Emergency Medicine, the past six months have been accompanied by a whirlwind of emotions.
There was the initial shock of hearing the diagnosis – no one in her family had cancer – and the six-week hospital stay that followed.
When she returned to her Williamsville home, Lerner “felt like I was putting myself in a box before I was in the box.” She wasn’t sure about going back to work.
But after about three weeks at home, she realized she wanted to get back to work at UB. There she is a leading expert in emergency medicine, particularly pediatric emergency triage, and is committed to helping improve the prehospital care provided by first responders before a patient reaches the ward. emergencies.
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Lerner, described by her colleagues as an excellent educator, role model and mentor, is also focused on the next generation of EMS researchers, hoping that the work she knows is so important will continue once she is gone.
That’s why she reached out to the National Association of EMS Physicians, which helped establish the E. Brooke Lerner Research Fund, which will focus on supporting new ideas and original thinking in an effort to strengthen prehospital care.
As Lerner, 50, tells her story, it remains hard to tell for the three-time UB graduate and Western New York native.
She knows her cancer is terminal – “You do chemo until it doesn’t work. There’s no cure,” Lerner said – but she’s focused on the fact that the days matter.
“It’s a very bad diagnosis,” she said. “And I think now I know my death will be sooner. But I still don’t know when. So kind of more preparation, but at the same time living and doing things.”
Lerner grew up in western New York thinking she would become a doctor, like her father.
“I always thought that was what I was going to do and didn’t realize the extent of the opportunities there are in healthcare and public health beyond being a doctor” , said Lerner, who graduated from Sweet Home High School in 1989.
She realized these opportunities while a student at the University at Buffalo, where she took an Emergency Medical Technician, or EMT, course. She then got a job with LaSalle Ambulance and, while working in ambulances in Buffalo for a few years, did research in the UB Department of Emergency Medicine.
As a research assistant, she discovered how much she enjoyed trying to answer “how” and “why” questions in the relatively young and unexplored field of emergency medical services. Lerner points out that prehospital care as a specialty didn’t really start until the 1970s, around the time the popular show “Emergency!” was on TV.
At UB, after earning her bachelor’s degree in 1993, she earned a master’s degree in epidemiology and community health in 1998 and her doctorate in epidemiology in 2001.
From there she followed her husband, who works in business, to Rochester, where she was assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Rochester from 2001 to 2006, then to Milwaukee, where she was professor of emergency medicine at the University of Rochester. Medical College of Wisconsin from 2006 to 2019.
All the while, his peers at UB stayed in touch.
Dr. Robert McCormack, a professor and chair of emergency medicine at UB, has known Lerner for 28 years — back when she was a researcher toward her master’s degree. After leaving Buffalo, McCormack said he stayed in touch, constantly raising a certain question when he saw her at national meetings.
“Aren’t you ready to come back to Buffalo?” he would harass.
Eventually, Lerner said yes, happy to return home to UB in 2019.
McCormack remembers the day and the call well.
He and his colleagues had a faculty book club that was to meet at his house.
“Look, I think I have hepatitis, because I have jaundice,” Lerner told McCormack over the phone. “So I’m not going to book club.”
McCormack called her the next day, asking about the blood test results at her doctor’s office. When Lerner said she didn’t have hepatitis, McCormack knew a much worse diagnosis could most likely follow when she visited the hospital.
Doctors knew what it was “pretty much right away,” Lerner said, but it came as a surprise nonetheless. With no cancer in the family, Lerner had always told his doctors “I was going to die of heart disease and I didn’t have to worry about cancer.”
After his stay in the hospital and a few weeks at home, Lerner was quick to talk to McCormack about returning to work.
McCormack said Lerner started out part-time for a few weeks and then moved back to full-time, “really doing everything she’s always done.” She also approached McCormack to have the difficult conversation about succession planning, telling him about the need to start looking for his possible replacement.
As a colleague and friend, McCormack said Lerner faces it all with courage and strength, facing the situation rather than denying it and not letting it stop him from doing what’s important in his life.
“I mean it’s obviously a devastating diagnosis,” McCormack said. “And I think from the start it was clear that the prognosis was very bad. And she really took it with grace, really understood it, dealt with it, really, from my perspective, adapted to it very quickly, for what I think I would do in the same situation.”
One of Lerner’s goals throughout his career has been to teach the next generation, train young teachers, clinicians and students, and pass on his skills, McCormack said. He said Lerner continues to do so today “with great energy and success.”
So it only made sense when McCormack and his colleagues discovered that Lerner had created a fund to create opportunities for future scholars.
“She has a lot of people who learned from her and yearn to be like her,” McCormack said.
Lerner has authored over 135 peer-reviewed publications and has won numerous federally funded grants to conduct research on EMS. Additionally, she led the development of the current national guideline for mass casualty triage.
But she knows there is still much to do and explore.
“I think the work is important because there’s so much we don’t know about prehospital care, and it can have such a big impact,” Lerner said. “I think people don’t really think about ambulances and fire engines coming to their homes until it happens, but I think it’s important to know that they can have a big impact on everything. what is happening.”
“It’s not just a ride, it’s actual care that can impact outcomes,” she said. “And the better it gets, the more people survive horrible days.”
She hopes that the fund created in her name at the National Association of EMS Physicians can create opportunities for other researchers dedicated to the field of prehospital care.
Dr. Michael Levy, president of the association, described Lerner as “an esteemed colleague and researcher” whose work has improved the ability to care for patients and communities.
“She has contributed so much to NAEMSP as a member, as a likeable and approachable offspring, and as an inspiring mentor,” Levy said. “She truly embodies the spirit of NAEMSP’s mission to advance prehospital care. That Dr. Lerner’s legacy will be carried on with an enduring fund to assist emerging scholars seeking to pursue this mission is a wonderful testament to his dedication and generosity as a leader in the EMS community.”
Lerner is happy to have had the opportunity to help set up the fund.
This will help ensure the continuity of other research like hers, whenever she is gone.
She doesn’t know when that will be, but she hopes the fund will grow enough that it can become sustainable and continue forever. She calls this her “super stretch goal” for the fund.
“Which is super high,” Lerner said. “But I like heights.”
Jon Harris can be reached at 716-849-3482 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ByJonHarris.
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