Cancer Doctor’s Heart Transplant Changed His Life—and Practice
When cancer treatment becomes grueling and the side effects disabling, sometimes Dr. William Biermann’s patients declare: “You just don’t understand!” They’re often surprised to learn just how wrong they are.
Because the heart inside Dr. Biermann’s chest that generates so much empathy and compassion—isn’t the one he was born with. Dr. Biermann, director of Oncology and Chief of Medicine at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, had a heart transplant in 2001. He was 51 years old at the time.
Dr. Biermann is an active advocate for organ donation on behalf of Gift of Life, a non-profit organization that coordinates organ and tissue donation for donors and recipients. April was National Donate Life Month, which is marked by activities to educate and encourage the public to donate organs.
It was the Friday before Super Bowl Sunday in 2001 when Dr. Biermann had a massive heart attack. He was hospitalized and eventually, in March, received a new heart. He was never able to learn the identity of his donor, though he tried to find out.
While the brush with mortality provoked fantasies of retiring from medicine in favor of fanciful pursuits—Aikido instruction, sword making (!), violin repair, and other equally offbeat avocations—he decided to return to treating patients. “As I got better, it felt right,” he said.
When Dr. Biermann resumed his medical career, he discovered his experience with devastating illness gave him a new credibility with patients. “When patients say, ‘I don’t think you get it,’ I tell them, ‘Oh, yes I do.’ It’s helped me become more relatable.”
When patients get discouraged by the side effects of treatment and wonder if it’s worth it, for instance, Dr. Biermann tells them of the complications he’s endured. The daily regimen of anti-rejection medication, he explains, caused the bones of his femurs to disintegrate; he’s had two hip replacements. “I tell them what I went through and that I’m glad I’m still here to talk about it,” he said. His ability to identify with the struggle encourages patients to press on through difficult times.
There are days when Dr. Biermann thinks of his heart transplant often. So much time has passed, though, that “Sometimes it seems as if it never happened.”
Dr. Biermann’s career has spanned extraordinary changes in cancer treatment and doctor-patient roles. When he started practicing, cancer was considered a death sentence and patients were protected from knowing the seriousness of their illness. “Doctors were treated with god-like respect,” he said.
Today, with the dramatic explosion of new treatment and direct marketing to consumers, it’s not uncommon for a patient to insist on a new drug that’s been advertised—regardless of whether it’s been proven effective for treating his or her particular cancer, and regardless of the fact that so many new medical therapies are prohibitively expensive. Dr. Biermann’s practice employs two people who spend much of their time trying to qualify patients for financial assistance for cancer treatment.
Over his career, Dr. Biermann has seen some cancers—such as melanoma and lung cancer—become treatable. Others remain resistant to therapy. He’s also seen physicians toppled from their god-like perch and demeaned in the public mindset as interested solely in making money. For the most part, he said, that’s not true.
“Most of us really just want to help somebody and share in the patient’s care,” he said. He’s been able to continue doing that for the past 18 years—helping thousands of cancer patients—thanks to the generosity of someone who gave him his heart.