Grateful for a Doctor’s Gifts

Oncologist David Gerber’s approach to cancer care inspires patients to give back

Photo collage of Dr. David Gerber, a jet airplane, a hanging IV bag, and illustrations of clapping hands.
Illustration by Robert D. Waller/UT Southwestern Medical Center; Source images: Portrait of David Gerber by Brian Coats/UT Southwestern Medical Center

David Gerber, M.D., isn’t in showbiz or a career where you become accustomed to the roar of the crowd. Maybe that's why the physician and cancer specialist still remembers the first standing ovation he received for his work. No, it didn’t happen in an operating theater after a marathon surgery or at a conference surrounded by colleagues. It happened at the end of a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Miami, during which he had inserted an emergency IV into the arm of an 80-year-old passenger who had collapsed at 30,000 feet.

For the physician and cancer specialist, it was one of many moments doing what he had trained to do as a resident at UT Southwestern Medical Center. What once took study and practice had become reflexive after years of repetition. Time and again, the outcomes have spurred patients and their families to express their gratitude for his skill and empathy.

A surgeon’s son

Born in Chicago, Dr. Gerber grew up in Toledo, Ohio. Before entering medical school, this son of a surgeon moved to Denver, Colorado, where he worked as a juvenile probation officer. For the future father of two teens, the job was “great training for being a parent.”

Dr. David Gerber
David Gerber, M.D. Brian Coats/UT Southwestern Medical Center

After his father’s career was cut short by carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Gerber attended medical school at Weill Cornell Medicine, following up with an internship and residency at UT Southwestern, where he served as Chief Resident. He was attracted to the institution because “while it was clear the residents at UT Southwestern were working considerably harder than those at Cornell, they also seemed incredibly happy with the training experience.”

Dr. Gerber selected oncology as his specialty because he felt the field “lent itself to meaningful interactions with patients.” In 2007, he returned to the Medical Center to join the faculty.

"I came back to UT Southwestern because I got the sense that something special was going to happen here,” said Dr. Gerber, a Professor of Internal Medicine and Population and Data Sciences. “I thought the Cancer Center was at the inflection point of taking off and that my research would be important to the institution’s overall success. Hitching my wagon to the institution ended up being the smartest professional decision I ever made.”

Connecting with empathy

When it comes to his patients, Dr. Gerber, who also serves as Associate Director of Clinical Research in the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, noted that it’s common to describe patients only by physical characteristics such as age, race, and gender. However, that's only part of the picture.

“I came back to UT Southwestern because I got the sense that something special was going to happen here.”

“I had an attending physician in medical school who always insisted that what he really wanted to know was whether the patient was a retired accountant with a home and kids. He wanted us to tell him about the person,” he said.

Inspired by his medical school experience, Dr. Gerber made it a priority to improve the quality of his patient communications during his oncology training, attending a week-long training course designed for cancer specialists.

“I left that program with a greater ability to connect with patients on really difficult topics,” he said. “Often we are asked by a patient or family member, 'How long does a patient have to live?' Now when I get that question, I politely respond, ‘Why do you ask?’ That simple question opens up an unexpected chance to talk about priorities and concerns in patients’ lives.”

Developing strong ties with a patient’s family has become a cornerstone of Dr. Gerber’s approach to his patients.

“Family members really are the greatest advocates for patients,” he said. “I discovered that by revealing to my patients my own vulnerabilities, my own limitations – really my own humanity – I am able to forge a greater alliance with them and their family and friends.”

Dr. David Johnson
David Johnson, M.D. Brian Coats/UT Southwestern Medical Center

His colleagues have witnessed his empathy for patients firsthand.

“David is the consummate physician,” said David Johnson, M.D., a Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern. The two first met in Dallas while Dr. Gerber was completing his fellowship. Dr. Johnson was then Director of the Division of Hematology-Oncology and Deputy Director of the Cancer Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“He models himself after physicians who believe fervently that it is not only important to understand your field but also to bring a humanistic quality to how you deliver your care,” said Dr. Johnson. “It’s not just about the therapeutic tools that a physician employs. It’s about being there as a fellow human being, and David does that exceptionally well.”

Giving back with gratitude

About six years ago, Thomas Hillsman, a Dallas-based attorney and real estate investor, had a cough that wouldn’t go away. Subsequent X-rays revealed a cancerous tumor, and Mr. Hillsman sought treatment at UT Southwestern’s Simmons Cancer Center. After surgeons removed the tumor from Mr. Hillsman’s lung, Dr. Gerber prescribed a chemotherapy regimen to destroy any remaining cancer.

“The thing about Dr. Gerber is that he’s the master chef when it comes to figuring out what kind of chemo will work best for you,” Mr. Hillsman said. “Dr. Gerber was very direct in sitting me down and saying he thought he could cure me. He also told me that there would be ups and downs as I go through the chemo and that he’d make the adjustments as we went along.”

Thomas Hillsman, Emitom Hillsman, Angela Hillsman, and Emily Hillsman
Thomas Hillsman with his daughters, from left, Emitom Hillsman and Angela Hillsman, and wife, Emily Hillsman Provided by Thomas Hillsman

Throughout treatment, Dr. Gerber’s empathy was on full display.

“You see that he’s a compassionate human being,” said Mr. Hillsman, whose cancer remains in full remission. “You understand this is a guy you can trust to do everything in your best interest. I’ve said time and time again, I’m not sure I’d be on this planet without Dr. Gerber.”

Four years ago when Jane Winer, Ph.D., was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, the retired Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Texas Tech University headed east to UT Southwestern. There she met Dr. Gerber, who immediately admitted her to begin treatment. He later recommended a new clinical research trial that he thought would help beat her cancer.

Jane Winer and Monty Strauss
Jane Winer, Ph.D., and her husband, Monty Strauss, Ph.D., on her 74th birthday Provided by Jane Winer

“Boy, did that work!” Dr. Winer said. “I’m still alive, and it’s all because of Dr. Gerber insisting I be included in that trial. He went to bat for me, and that has been the difference between life and death.”

Mr. Hillsman’s and Dr. Winer’s praises echo a recurring refrain among Dr. Gerber’s patients, who describe him as a caring physician who made a difference in their lives. To demonstrate their appreciation, both Dr. Winer and Mr. Hillsman have given back to the Medical Center, each making a gift in Dr. Gerber’s honor to support ongoing research projects at Parkland Health and Hospital System.

“Their generosity shows that what I do is meaningful to them, and that means so much to me.”

Even some of the smallest gifts have made a significant impact on his research. By supporting early-stage projects that have eventually led to funding from the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society, and others, even relatively modest gifts from grateful patients have turned into multi-million-dollar grants.

“I feel blessed by these patients,” Dr. Gerber said. “These larger grants are certainly empowering, but they don’t have quite the personal resonance of a patient’s gift. Their generosity shows that what I do is meaningful to them, and that means so much to me.”

  • Dr. Gerber holds the David Bruton, Jr. Professorship in Clinical Cancer Research.
  • Dr. Johnson holds the R. Ellwood Jones, M.D. Distinguished Professorship in Clinical Education.