Doctor Jill Berkowitz-Berliner, DPM, CWS
Doctor of Podiatric Medicine. Board Certified Podiatrist.
Board Certified Wound Specialist
Interview by Caroline Pope
Caroline Pope: How did you decide to be a podiatrist?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: I was always interested in medicine. In my group of high school friends I wanted to be a doctor, one friend wanted to be a lawyer, and one wanted to be an accountant. We joked around that we would someday buy a professional building and would all be in the same workspace. We all ended up with those jobs… but we don’t share a building.
Science stuff that I did in high school completely grossed out my family – but I thought it was so fascinating. I remember how interesting it was when we dissected eyes from different animals like a sheep versus a fisher shark and how the inside of an eye looks like the inside of a blueberry.
Caroline Pope: Where did you go to school?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: I graduated from Trumbull High School. I had a great experience there and even won the senior girl’s math award when I was a junior. It was a tremendous honor because the award was only given to students in honors math and I wasn’t in honors. Then I went to Smith College and double majored in Biochemistry and Sociology because when I started they didn’t offer minors. Smith is a women-only college, though there were a few male grad students in biology or sports medicine. Smith was the first women’s college to offer an engineering program and that is appealing because you don’t have to worry about guys dominating the class they way they often can. I felt very comfortable standing up and talking and asking questions. I then attended New York College of Podiatric Medicine and did my residency at Englewood Hospital. It was a small one-year program and there was one podiatry resident each year so my year it was just me. I had no other podiatry residents to interact with. After residency, my husband who is also a podiatrist and I moved to Mount Kisco, opened an office, and have been here ever since.
Caroline Pope: What was your favorite subject in school and why?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: I thought science was really interesting. I kind of skated by when I was in high school. I didn’t have to study too hard because I was kind of “super smart.” I remember being in class with a lot of jocks and having teachers explain something too many times and I would get frustrated and go to the board and try to communicate it to the class better because I wanted to move on. My math teacher appreciated my tenacity and I think that’s one of the reasons he chose to nominate me for the math award. In high school, I barely had to study to do well but that changed when I went to college.
Caroline Pope: What is the best part of your job?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: I think the best part is helping to fix someone’s problem like an ingrown toenail or a splinter that I can pull out, I can get them feeling better very quickly. Sometimes it takes a lot longer if someone has a wound – it can take weeks or months to get the wound to heal because very often the person has diabetes and that slows everything down. I also like it when I do noninvasive vascular testing. We have a machine that measures blood pressures all over a patient’s body: on both of their arms, both calves, both ankles, and both big toes (those are really tiny blood pressure cuffs, like little Barbie blood pressure cuffs.) I hook it all up to a machine, measure the blood pressures at all those different segments, and then I can see when there is a big drop between one segment and the next segment that the person has a narrowing or blockage; when that’s the case I refer them to a vascular surgeon. It very interesting and great technology.
Caroline Pope: Do you feel that being a doctor is a male-dominated career choice?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: Not anymore, it used to be but now medical schools are about 50/50. There are lots of women doctors now. As far as being Chief of Departments I think that’s probably still more male-dominated. I read an interesting fact last year that if someone has a female doctor they are 10% less likely to die of any cause than if they had a male doctor. When I was a resident I was told that of all the urologists in the country there were only nine females at that time. I think I’m very good at explaining things to people which I think makes it easier for patients to fix their problem themselves if they know what it really is, what they should do, and what they shouldn’t do. I talk a lot but I’ve had many patients tell me that no one has ever explained their problem to them like I had – not even remotely close and that it was very helpful. If a patient doesn’t understand what the problem is and they know what to avoid, they will keep having the issue. Maybe female doctors communication skills make the difference with mortality rate.
Caroline Pope: Did you ever see discrimination for being a woman?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: When I began, the Chief of the Surgical Department was a man. While there really aren’t any powers with that job he was telling us that we had to have a certain number of surgical cases each year or we would lose our surgical privileges and we would drop down to non-surgical. This is a discriminatory policy; it discriminates against women if they are pregnant. There was a pregnant woman in my podiatry residency group who had a gynecologist-obstetrician tell her she could not set foot in his operating room because there are a little bit of anesthetic gases that are in the air (most of it is in the patient’s mask but some of it escapes.) There are studies going way back to the 1950s or 60s that showed that operating room personnel had a higher rate of miscarriages then non-operating personnel. The lead doctor said she couldn’t do any surgeries and would become non-surgical. I said it was discrimination and the Chief was arguing with me and as I was talking when he cut me off. I had to say “you interrupted me. Excuse me I was talking. Don’t interrupt me.” I’m glad that I did that because he was being a total jerk.
Caroline Pope: Your husband Richard took the same path as you. Do you feel like your experiences were similar to his or were they different based on gender?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: I think they were similar but he did observe in his residency program that the male residents were a little inappropriate with females.
Caroline Pope: Did you have any uncomfortable “me too” type moments in your career?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: One day I was heading toward the doctor’s locker room to brush my teeth and another doctor was coming in from the doctor’s parking lot entrance and he saw me and said, “Hi, how are you?” I said, “I’m fine. I’m just going to go brush my teeth because my mouth tastes gross.” He said “Ew your mouth tastes like Dr. Gross”, who was a colleague of ours. It was very embarrassing and inappropriate. I spent a lot of the day bothered by it and I did decide to speak to someone about it. It was addressed and I received no negative consequences for speaking up – which can happen. I was glad I didn’t let it go. Sometimes I think as women get older and more established they speak up more than they did when they were young. I think that’s probably true in many cases and when I hear men saying “well you know if it’s happened to this person why didn’t she speak up?” Unfortunately when someone is first starting out in their career and they need a job or a recommendation they may decide to not criticize or say “hey you know this person is harassing me.”
Caroline Pope: How do you think more girls could be recruited into Science and Engineering?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: The movie Hidden Figures about the women of NASA was great as well as just talking about Rosalind Franklin who discovered DNA and other women who have come before is very important. Seeing successful women in action makes it attainable.
Caroline Pope: Any advice for girls interested in STEM?
Jill Berkowitz-Berliner: I mean you can go at it different ways. You can tell girls that you know they are just as good if not better than boys in math and science. Sometimes girls look at problems in a different way than boys and they certainly communicate better than boys. It’s kind of advantageous for our civilization if more women go into engineering and other science fields. If it’s always men ruling then they gear things towards men and tend to minimize women. I don’t know why but that seems to be the way it goes.