Published November 7, 2022
By Ellen Goldbaum
Even before she had made up her mind about which career path to choose, emergency medicine has been at the center of E. Brooke Lerner’s professional life. So when her life took an extremely unexpected turn earlier this year, (which she discusses in this video), it made sense that in reconfiguring her priorities, emergency medicine would still be one of them.
A three-time graduate of the University at Buffalo, Lerner returned to her alma mater in 2019 as a tenured professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Emergency Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Throughout her career, she has been focused on improving prehospital care; that’s the care provided before an individual reaches an emergency department by first responders and ambulance personnel at the scene and on the way to the hospital.
More recently, she has done research on improving prehospital care for children through the federally funded Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network (PECARN), for which she is the immediate past chair of the steering committee. PECARN’s goal is to conduct research on the prevention and management of acute illnesses and injuries in children and adolescents.
Amid these professional as well as family responsibilities, Lerner’s life took a dramatic and devastating turn last spring. It started with a loss of appetite. When Lerner noticed that she was looking jaundiced, she figured she better find out what was going on.
She still felt fine but took herself to the emergency department. Assuming she would be returning to her car later that day, she parked at the back of the hospital lot. Because of the jaundice, her assumption was that she had contracted hepatitis.
“I literally left my computer open and expected to be back at work,” she recalled. Her hospital stay ended up lasting six weeks.
She was completely unprepared for the diagnosis she ultimately received: stage four pancreatic cancer; in other words, terminal.
Upon being discharged from the hospital, Lerner wondered if she would ever return to work. But after three weeks at home, she returned to the job she loves.
“I realized, I was putting myself in a box before I was really in a box,” she said. “I love what I do and I love using my brain, so I worked with my chair to come back … with an eye on succession planning and all those hard conversations.”
There were things Lerner wanted to finish up at work. She was also preoccupied. “I thought a lot about what I wanted my obituary to say in lieu of flowers,” she said.
That led her to reflect on what she has accomplished. After graduating as an undergraduate from UB in 1993, Lerner thought she would probably go to medical school. So she trained and became an emergency medical technician, figuring that would be good experience. But working as an EMT and then as a research assistant in UB’s Department of Emergency Medicine opened up other possibilities.
“I really liked the research,” she said. After getting her master’s and doctoral degrees in epidemiology from UB, she continued to do research, working at the University of Rochester and then at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She used her skills to conduct research and to ensure that the findings were put into practice. For example, she led the development of the current national guideline for mass casualty triage.
Lerner is quick to point out that emergency medical services, or EMS, as it’s known, only started in the 1970s.
“EMS doesn’t have a huge literature base, because it’s such a young specialty,” she said. And as vice chair of research in the Department of Emergency Medicine, she has been encouraging others in the field to pursue research as one of her primary missions.
“I’ve personally done a lot of research in this area and have also helped grow other investigators in the field,” she said. “That’s my job at UB: getting more faculty engaged in research and getting more federal funding. I wanted to create a fund that supports that work.”
At the same time, colleagues and friends who learned of her diagnosis made clear that they wanted somehow to help. Her plan began to take shape.
She approached the National Association of EMS Physicians (NAEMSP), told them about her diagnosis and floated the idea of creating a fund to help support new generations of researchers in the field.
“They were excited about this and excited to support me,” said Lerner. “I also think it’s needed. It didn’t exist, a foundation that funds studies in prehospital care, the high-risk, high-reward research that can help people go after NIH funding.”
At her request, the NAEMSP established the E. Brooke Lerner Research Fund “to realize her vision and honor her commitment to EMS research and researchers.”
Lerner is thankful she had the time to create this opportunity for those who will come after her in the profession. She thinks the fund also honors her colleagues, and the people who work in any area of emergency medicine including, and especially, those who work as EMS professionals, as she once did.
“It's an amazing occupation,” she said. “This is where people trust you to come into their house at their worst moment and try to make things better. It’s one of those occupations that’s underappreciated — until you need them.”