Master Clinician: Bradley Lewis, MD

From History to Medicine

bradley lewisBradley Lewis, MD, director of hematology at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH), has always gravitated towards complex challenges. During college, he joined Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground, speaking to campus groups about the Vietnam War. "People didn't know how to think about political and social issues in a coherent way, so I went back to school in history," said Lewis. "I wanted to look at how people solve problems that don't have solutions."

After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with degrees in biochemistry and history, he pursued a PhD in history. An advisor recommended going to medical school to help him land a tenure-track job in history. He took her advice, but fell in love with medicine, abandoned history, and became a hematologist.

In 1984, he began his practice at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, just as the AIDS epidemic was devastating the hemophilia community. "I wasn't happy to see my patients get sick, but I liked the emotional intensity, and needing to think your way through to a solution in an area where the answers weren't clear," said Lewis. He established the adult hemophilia program at Alta Bates, directing it for over 20 years, and also co-founded the East Bay AIDS Center.

He also spent one month every year moonlighting on the hematology service at SFGH, which provided an outlet for his passion for teaching and a window onto groundbreaking AIDS discoveries. In 2006, he was recruited to the UCSF faculty full-time. Lewis uses the same skills he honed as a historian to explain complex hematology issues. "Information can be passed on more efficiently by a book, but I can make it memorable with stories," he says. "Also, you need to look seriously at the edges of the picture – if things don't quite fit, you need to have a good reason for why, or keep puzzling it out until it works."

"Brad has a way of explaining complicated concepts precisely and memorably, without oversimplifying them, tailoring his explanations to his target audience," says Beth Harleman, MD, associate program director of the UCSF Internal Medicine Residency Program.

Lewis loves caring for seriously ill patients, but watching so many of them die has been challenging. "A mentor told me, 'One of the blessings of being in this business is that you get to feel,'" he says. "A hundred years ago, the clergy would mediate between life and death. Physicians have taken over that job to a large extent, guiding people across the passage between the known and the unknown."

Although he serves as an attending physician at least 10 months annually, Lewis balances intense clinical work with other passions, including flying planes and skiing. He has two grown children, Jesse and Rebecca, and is married to Lorinda Coombs, RN, MSN, ARNP, a former nurse practitioner at SFGH who is currently a PhD candidate at UCSF. Together they have a 5-year-old daughter, Eleanor.