An interview with Dr. Cheryl

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The Children’s Hospital is the proud home of many accomplished women, including the remarkable Dr. Cheryl Greenberg.

Over the course of her esteemed career, Dr. Greenberg has served as the Director of the Metabolic Service and a clinical geneticist in the Program in Genetics and Metabolism. She is a Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health and the Department of Biochemistry and Medical Genetics, University of Manitoba. Dr. Greenberg was named to the 2012 list of Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100, in the trailblazers and trendsetters category.

Dr. Greenberg obtained her MDCM from McGill in 1974. She became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (Pediatrics) in 1979 and in Medical Genetics in 1996. She has been a Fellow of the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists since 1982. Dr. Greenberg served as Medical Director of the Child Health program, WRHA, and Head of the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health, University of Manitoba, from 2004-2014.

It’s a list of accomplishments that are met with an abundance of humility and grace.

“What can I say,” asks Dr. Greenberg? “I haven’t had the challenges of the journey of a Syrian refugee for example. It’s all a matter of perspective. I try to never lose that perspective.”

It is perspective born largely out of tragedy, as Dr. Greenberg was just 6 years old when her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“My father never told us she had cancer,” remembers Dr. Greenberg. “In those days you didn’t talk about it. I had no idea that a mother could die.”

After battling cancer for 7 years, her Mom passed away. Dr. Greenberg had just turned 14.

“My mom died when she was 40,” says Dr. Greenberg. “My father only told me a week before she died that we were going to lose her. I had no idea. When my dad told me she was going to die, that’s precisely when my life changed. It was my first big lesson. I was going to have to honour her memory, and make up for all of those years that I didn’t help her because I didn’t know she was sick.

Not surprisingly Dr. Greenberg cites losing her mother at a young age as having a profound effect on her life. Circumstances would soon change again as her father became ill just 3 years later.

“So there was me and my 2 brothers and it changed my life,” recalls Dr. Greenberg. “I started being responsible and I pretty much raised my little brother. I had to cook and clean and do the shopping ever since I was 14. That was the beginning of a life of giving back.”

Rather than allowing unfortunate circumstances to derail her, Dr. Greenberg turned her personal loss into life-long motivation.

“Losing my parents at a young age certainly helped shape my feelings of my life being a privilege,” says Dr. Greenberg. “I always say to my brothers ‘they’re watching us and we can’t screw up’. We still think of their memory all the time.”

Dr. Greenberg opted to go into physiotherapy right out of high school, but only lasted one year.

“It was a real crisis for my life. It was the first time I didn’t have a career path. I went back into regular university, where I went to a genetics class and my professor Dr. Fraser suggested I apply to medical school. I had no idea that such an opportunity existed, that women could be doctors.”

Dr. Greenberg took Dr. Fraser’s advice, along with his reference letter that described the future doctor as ‘cute and intelligent’. Such a description may be seen as curious in today’s climate, but Dr. Greenberg didn’t think much of it at the time.

“I took it as a compliment. Certainly if it were 20 years later he never would have written such a thing, but he never meant it in a demeaning way. When I got accepted I couldn’t believe it.”

Dr. Greenberg graduated McGill medical school focusing on both pediatrics and metabolic genetics. Even though Dr. Greenberg was one of only a handful of women in her class, she never felt her gender held her back, although it may have influenced her draw to genetics.

“Medical school was predominantly male, but I never felt a barrier to anything because of my gender,” says Dr. Greenberg.  “Men and women did the same classes, took the same exams and had the same rotation.  Although subconsciously maybe I was attracted to metabolic genetics, as oppose to neurosurgery, because it was a sub specialty that wasn’t as male oriented at the time.”

Along with an esteemed career in medicine, Dr. Greenberg wanted a family, and never concerned herself with whether or not she could have both. For her, it was always about choices.

“In the past trying to have both a medical career and a family came at a price,” says Dr. Greenberg. “I was passionate about being a Mother and I was also passionate about my career.  I don’t remember, during the years I had a young family, ever going for a coffee with a friend. It was unheard of. So there was a price to be paid, but it’s all choices. You make choices, and I chose that any spare time that I had I spent with the kids. It was probably good that I never needed more than 6 hours sleep.”

With her limited sleep requirements Dr. Greenberg was able to establish herself as not only a pediatrician, but also a geneticist, a researcher and an academic. It was the marriage of those interests that made Winnipeg particularly enticing for her life’s work.

“I always wanted to be affiliated with a teaching hospital and a university setting, and the University of
Manitoba offered that opportunity in very close collaboration with the hospital,” remarks Dr. Greenberg. “It’s quite unique here in Winnipeg.”

That distinct set up has been the home for Dr. Greenberg’s multi-faceted career. With each facet always revolving around the same thing; the patient.

“Everything I’ve done, whether it’s administration, whether it’s clinician, whether it’s just life, if you put the patient in the centre it’s easy,” says Dr. Greenberg. “As an administrator, you’d deal with squabbles, because people squabble all the time, and I’d just have to say, this is not about you, and it’s not about you and it’s not about me…it’s about the patient. You have to do what’s in the best interest of the patient. Everything else is petty.”

So steadfast is Dr. Greenberg’s dedication that she once found herself on a cell phone arguing with a drug company while on a Hawaiian vacation with her family.

“Fighting on the beach of Maui, yes I did that,” chuckles Dr. Greenberg.  “I follow the process, but sometimes I feel that they push me and I don’t like that so I push back. In all honesty, it never dawned on me that it was an odd thing to do. Although I don’t think it’s a coincidence that neither one of my children ever took a science course. I don’t think it’s an accident.”

It is that patient focused ideology that contributed to Dr. Greenberg’s success in treating hypophosphatasia, a genetic bone disease. Her research began in 1982, and led to successful treatment in 2015.  Dr. Greenberg considers it to be her proudest professional accomplishment.

“Seeing that disease, finding the genetic basis for it, which involved patient engagement and work with the family and then being able to do gene discovery and testing and give back to the community was an incredible journey,” Dr. Greenberg says with a smile. “Then being asked to lead clinical trials and to have a drug that actually worked and turned a fatal disease into a treatable one, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Quick to credit good people in leadership positions that have helped her along the way, Dr. Greenberg recognizes how much of her work has been supported by the Children’s Hospital Foundation.

“Without the support of the Foundation I could not have accomplished many of the things I was able to do,” says Dr. Greenberg. “Each dollar that the Children’s Hospital Foundation gives to the Research Institute provides seed money for research, then they go out and get national funding. So often, for every dollar that the foundation has invested in basic research, that same dollar has probably brought in ten to twenty dollars of national support. It’s very special.”

Also special is the support the community continues to give the Foundation.

“I’m amazed at how generous people are,” says Dr. Greenberg. “Winnipeg is a relatively small city for the number of competing foundations, and I cannot believe how much people give, selflessly, to raise money for children. I am very proud to have any association with Children’s Hospital and I never take it for granted.  A lot of people don’t realize just how grassroots a lot of the fundraising is and what a huge difference it makes. It’s the cumulative amount of all the small donations that allows us to do what we do.”

What Dr. Greenberg is planning to do next is not necessarily something she is looking forward to.

“I think the hardest thing going forward is knowing that 99% of my career is over. I don’t know where the time has gone, and this getting old is not for sissies,” chuckles Dr. Greenberg. “I never want to stop being a doctor, but the reality is that I have to move on to the next phase of my life, and I will have to give up my full time academic position. There are young people who have to start their careers, and if there’s somebody good who can give 30 years in metabolic genetics I will give up my position. Not because I want to, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Dr. Greenberg’s tireless spirit and devotion to her work makes her an obvious subject to celebrate on this occasion, although she doesn’t necessarily agree.

“To even be acknowledged for International Women’s Day is a true honour, but I’m amazed when people think I’ve done anything particularly special. I don’t feel like I paid any price for my career, I feel like I made a choice.”

Future choices will include spending more time with her beloved 2 and a half year old grandson Max, who has a sibling on the way.

As is her style, Dr. Greenberg looks upon her amazing career with a great deal of humility and perspective.

“In my own little world, maybe I’ve made a difference, but the big world is still full of pretty awful people who do awful things, and there’s some very brave women out there fighting and enduring unthinkable atrocities. So when I read about such atrocities and think about how I have been given the privilege of being a doctor, it reminds me that I must not ever abuse that privilege. I never will. It’s been an absolute privilege.”

The privilege is ours Dr. Greenberg. Thank you for all that you do.