September 2, 2010

VUMC Reporter profile: Bernard keeps life, career on even keel

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There’s no shortage of work for Gordon Bernard, M.D., VUMC’s vice chancellor for Research. (photo by Anne Rayner)

VUMC Reporter profile: Bernard keeps life, career on even keel

By the time Gordon Bernard got to kindergarten, he had learned the essentials of what it takes to be successful in life.

Growing up in a household with 10 children proved to be good practice for his current roles as Vanderbilt University Medical Center's associate vice chancellor for Research and senior associate dean for Clinical Sciences.

“In a large family, people don't always get what they want,” said Bernard. “You have to share and get along. You have to learn to adapt. Learning that worked for me in many different environments and carried over into most everything I have done.”

Although childhood did not prepare him for the science or profession of medicine, it gave him a foundation where he developed the qualities that many attribute to his success — the ability to get along with people and his knack for dealing with difficult situations.

“Being in a large family you are in a group of what you think would be similar personalities, but they are actually quite diverse,” said Bernard. “After a while, there's very little that surprises you anymore and that is certainly true in medicine.

“Especially in critical care medicine, there is so much of humanity you encounter that there is hardly anything new you haven't seen,” he said. “Getting emotionally involved and out of control is not going to fix it. You have to stay in control if you are going to get anything done.”

Gordon Bernard, M.D., right, and his wife, Yvonne, second from right, at home with Jacques and Claire, two of the couple’s four children. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Gordon Bernard, M.D., right, and his wife, Yvonne, second from right, at home with Jacques and Claire, two of the couple’s four children. (photo by Anne Rayner)

And that has been Bernard's M.O. since he stepped foot onto the Vanderbilt campus in 1979 as the Parker B. Francis Fellow in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine.

Ken Brigham, M.D., the former chair of the division, recalled Bernard's early days at the Medical Center.

“I did not have high hopes for him as an academic person,” admitted Brigham. “I thought he was headed into private practice, but it became clear through his outstanding performance that he had gifts.

“He was so good that immediately upon finishing his fellowship, I hired him and appointed him associate chief of the Division for Clinical Affairs. That is a very fast track.”

Brigham, who is now at Emory University in Atlanta serving as the vice chair for Research in the Department of Medicine, recalled that his former student was several years ahead of other new faculty members. He said that Bernard had an innate ability to deal with highly challenging situations with equanimity and a skill for relating to people.

“He was undaunted by the tasks he was assigned. It has been typical of his entire career,” said Brigham. “He accepts roles with complete confidence that they will get done in a proper way.”

Take the Institutional Review Board or IRB at Vanderbilt. After years of hearing complaints and filing a few grievances himself, he was given the task of fixing what was wrong with the system.

“That's how I got into administration,” said Bernard. “You know how that works, right? When you are the one complaining (the loudest) they give you the job of fixing it.”

As he showed finesse in working through the kinks of the Medical Center's research review process, he was tapped to oversee the University's clinical and translational research enterprise, which ultimately became known as VICTR.

This program was started with a $40 million clinical and translational science award (CTSA), which Bernard applied for in 2007, that allows the institute to provide next-generation support to faculty working to translate fundamental scientific discoveries into clinical practice, with innovative training programs and state-of-the-art informatics and biostatistical methods.

Cooking is one of Bernard’s favorite pastimes. Here, he and daughter Claire get the evening meal ready. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Cooking is one of Bernard’s favorite pastimes. Here, he and daughter Claire get the evening meal ready. (photo by Anne Rayner)

VICTR also houses VUMC's Clinical Research Center (CRC), the predecessor program of the CTSA and a leading site for patient-oriented research and training. Created nearly 50 years ago, Vanderbilt's program was the first of its kind in the country.

Having served as a model, Vanderbilt is now one of 39 programs in the country. Ultimately there will be 60 programs. Bernard led the consortium of CTSAs last year as co-chair of the CTSA Steering Committee.

“We work together to try to overcome obstacles that slow down the pace of translating new ideas to treatments that improve human health or prevent disease,” explained Bernard. “We serve as a broader umbrella for infrastructural support of clinical and translational research.”

Touted as a leader in clinical and translational research, Vanderbilt has reason to stand tall. But the program has not reached its full potential — yet.

Bernard is not fazed by the enormity of the project. Perhaps he can still hear his mother whispering in his ear — “the sky is the limit.”


Learning gumption

A native of Lafayette, La., Bernard grew up in what is known as the heart of Cajun Country. His father was a salesman and his mother stayed home to care for him and his nine siblings.

When Bernard was five or six years old, his mother made a life-changing decision that he believes set the wheels in motion for his own future. She returned to get her college degree to become an elementary school teacher

“My mother has had the biggest impact on my life,” said Bernard. “You can imagine what gumption it took to try to manage going back to college and handling 10 children. Just seeing her bettering herself and knowing she had a goal…

“And to be told constantly that you could and should do whatever you wanted even though we were a family of very little means, really set the stage for me.”

And he set his sights high.

After graduating from the University of Southwestern Louisiana he went on to obtain his medical degree from Louisiana State University. Externships, internships and residencies followed from Minnesota, North Carolina, and Kentucky to Nashville.

Bernard's accomplishments include the ultimate for researchers — bench to bedside findings. He designed and implemented the trial for the drug Xigris, the only FDA-approved drug for the treatment of severe sepsis as well as his breakthroughs in the use of lower tidal volume mechanical ventilation for the treatment of ARDS — Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome.

He is highly regarded in his field by colleagues like Wes Ely, M.D., who attributes much of his own professional successes to that of his mentor and friend.

“He is, I think, one of the most famous ICU doctors on the planet,” said Ely, professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt. “But at the same time, he is one of the most humble, down-to-earth, easy to talk to and practical physicians and researchers I've ever met.”

Ely said Bernard's focus is simple — improving the lives of patients.

“One of the real lessons of Gordon's success is keeping ego out of medicine,” said Ely. “It allows you to see more clearly what it is you are accomplishing for the patients and not for yourself. For him it's about patients' well-being rather than ratcheting up his fame.”


Encouraging enthusiasm

Whether it's patient care, research work or family time, Bernard always brings his A-game.

His oldest child, son Ben, said his father is a great role model in many ways.

“He is one of those people who loves life and doesn't care who's watching,” said the New York financial advisor. “He allows himself to be a little bit silly at times, but it is always from a great place.

“He is accomplished and successful in his field, but it's truly from hard work, dedication and a love for what he does. I strive to attain a career that will make me as happy and to be a leader like him.”

Ben said his dad has a penchant for getting others enthused about a project, similar to the way Tom Sawyer got the white picket fence painted — minus the manipulation.

Humor is a key ingredient in Gordon and Yvonne Bernard’s relationship. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Humor is a key ingredient in Gordon and Yvonne Bernard’s relationship. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Although Bernard never passes work off to others, he is good at “getting people moving in the same direction, working together and being effective at the task at hand.”

Ben is not the only child who has picked up on their father’s talents. Youngest sibling Claire, a senior at George Washington University, is grateful for the lessons learned from her father.

She describes Bernard, whom she calls Gordon, as a very calm, balanced and responsible person.

“From my dad I have learned a sense of perspective. That you should never overreact and that you should take everything as it comes,” said Claire.

She said he can always be counted on to make good decisions and always speaks with purpose or doesn't say anything at all — except when he has the urge to tell a joke.

“There is nothing he says that you can just throw away at the end of the day, unless it's a terrible joke,” said Claire. “He has the worst sense of humor. It is awful. I mean they are really bad jokes and he knows it.”

Bernard is taken aback by the assertion that his one-liners aren't winners.

“I have great jokes,” he quipped. “Ok. One, I know they are bad. Two, I also know that they get a laugh; and three, they are short. So in the end, a laugh is a laugh.

“And even if they don't laugh, they whine, so it's fun because I've got them either way.”


Eyes on the prize

Even his wife of 34 years admits that his puns are a bit painful. But it's part of his charm, said Yvonne.

The pair met while Bernard was in medical school in New Orleans and she worked as an ICU nurse in a Lafayette hospital.

Yvonne said she was attracted to the logical, non-emotional side of Bernard. It also didn't hurt that he was a jack of all trades, like her father.
His wit was evident early in their friendship when he told her she would be married by the time she was 25. The two made a $100 bet. Turns out, she lost.

“He wanted me to pay him at the altar,” said Yvonne, giggling. “He still hasn't gotten that money.”

Yvonne Bernard, R.N., a pediatric critical care case manager at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, can't let her husband have all the credit for his positive career turns.

“Well, behind every good doctor there's a great nurse,” she winked.

The Bernards have four children — Ben, 29, Aline, 28, Jacques, 24, and Claire, 21. The family is famous for their globetrotting excursions to destinations such as China, India and Nicaragua.

When he is not traveling, Bernard has developed quite the reputation as a culinary wizard, a French wine connoisseur, a green thumb and a Trekkie, as in a Star Trek buff.

He doesn't do much reading outside of what is required for work. And he has not cultivated other interests for lack of time, which doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon.

The mere mention of the word retirement makes Bernard, 59, a bit uneasy.

“I don't know if I can retire,” laughed Bernard. “It's not on my agenda. I love every minute of what I do. I love to come to work every day and I cannot envision what I'd rather do with my time.”

Aline Bernard, a pediatrics resident at Denver Children's Hospital, said she was inspired by her father's enthusiasm for learning and medicine.
Poised to take on the role as the pediatric chief resident at the hospital, she said she learned one of life’s most important lessons from watching her father.

“I have learned that there is nothing more important than the person who is immediately in front of you, both in personal life and in medicine,” she said.

Noting that he has a never-ending stack of paperwork and other responsibilities, Bernard has always been very attentive to each of his patients, she said.

“He once told me 'there are no such things as administrative emergencies.' Although he takes on a significant amount of administrative duties, he never loses sight of what is most important, the care of individual patients.”

Aline said she understands that most people are not in a job they look forward to each day, but believes there is a career that ignites a light in everyone.

“My dad showed me that dedication pays off,” she said. “If you work hard to develop your passion, you no longer see it as work.”