“Yale has taken me full circle,” says pediatrician Susan Beris, MD. “My professional life began here when I did my residency training.” After that came a thriving private practice in western Connecticut. But then, she says, “two years ago I returned, this time as a patient with a brain tumor.” Beris says she is grateful both to “a fantastic team of physicians” and to Yale for the intricate surgery she received and the strong recovery she has made.
Beris believes in giving back. To that end, she has pledged a generous portion of her estate to Yale School of Medicine, to be shared by the departments of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics. The funds will be directed to the Susan Beris, MD, Fund for the Yale Brain Tumor Surgery Program and the Susan Beris, MD, Fund for the Pediatric Residency Program. This gift follows others she has made to support the brain tumor surgery program.
“I don’t think I was ever a philanthropic person until now,” she says, “But surviving a brain tumor, your perspective changes. I thought, ‘Let me put my money to good use.’ ” Two passions have driven Beris throughout her life: her work and her commitment to fitness. Every day she works out in her home gym, riding her exercise bicycle. But her career as a pediatrician abruptly ended in August 2018, when she was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive and almost universally fatal tumor.
“At work that morning, a nurse asked me a question and I answered in gibberish,” she says. “I felt my head shake. I thought I was having a stroke, but it was a seizure.”
Beris was transported to a nearby hospital, where scans showed a brain tumor perilously near the motor strip. Lacking the expertise to remove it, the medical team offered the option of a biopsy. “Call me a snob—but I didn’t want a general neurosurgeon,” she says. “I wanted the most specialized neurosurgeon with the best technical skills.”
She was given the name of Jennifer Moliterno, MD, associate professor of neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine and chief of neurosurgical oncology, who specializes in surgeries for complex tumors located in highly functioning brain (speech and motor areas). “The moment I met Jen I knew she was perfect for me,” says Beris. “I loved the fact that she only does brain tumor surgery. She is very smart and also trained at Yale. We were both chief residents, 20 years apart.”
Moliterno presented a treatment plan that called for total resection, or complete removal, of the tumor. Studies show a significant improvement in survival in glioblastoma patients who have total resection, as opposed to just a biopsy or even subtotal removal. “Given the location, I planned for an awake craniotomy, so we could test her strength with her awake while I removed the tumor,” says Moliterno. “We have excellent results with this type of surgery in our hands, using a well-designed protocol that includes a highly specialized team of neurophysiologists and neuroanesthesiologists, as well as intraoperative imaging. We can be as aggressive surgically as is safely possible, which is important in this disease.”
While the notion of awake brain surgery strikes fear in the hearts of many, Beris was all in when she learned that it offered the best chance of removing the tumor while preserving motor function. The procedure was successful, with all of the tumor removed and Beris maintaining her strength. She experienced no pain or anxiety and she made a quick recovery. She went home two days after surgery and just one month later, she completed a 10K run, a fundraiser for the Connecticut Brain Tumor Association.
Few patients with glioblastoma survive for two years beyond surgery and Beris is happy to be one of them. Her health intact, she is focused on philanthropy. “Thinking about all I’ve been given, I wanted to support this program,” she explains. “Other brain tumor patients should have access to the same excellent care I had.”
“I am so happy with how well Susie has done and beyond grateful for her incredibly generous gift,” says Moliterno. “We’ll use these funds to support a series of educational programs for patients and the medical community, informing them about the exceptional care Yale has to offer.” One such event is the Susan Beris, MD, Brain Tumor Symposium, tentatively scheduled for spring 2021 if COVID-19 restrictions permit, with smaller continuing medical education seminars in the interim.
The Department of Pediatrics plans to use its gift to support residency training. “It will enable us to provide enhanced educational experiences designed to enhance critical thinking skills for our residents,” says Clifford W. Bogue, MD, chair and Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Pediatrics. “The fund may also support our resident education tracks where residents receive focused educational experiences in areas such as advocacy, quality improvement, medical education, child health research, and global health.” Bogue adds, “Susie Beris is an incredibly positive force for good, and Yale Pediatrics is very proud to call her one of our own.”