An alum is now health director for Ohio’s second largest city.
After David Margolius ’06 MD’11 embraced an interest in global health, he realized travel through several time zones did not have to be part of his plan.
There was plenty to be done 10 miles from home.
Margolius, a Shaker Heights, OH, native, became Cleveland’s director of public health on August 1. Resignation of his duties at MetroHealth, a local safety-net hospital, did not require a long physical move. Mentally, there were some steps involved.
“It is a huge honor,” he says. “When I first started talking to the City of Cleveland about the opportunity, at first I was thinking, how could I ever leave MetroHealth, this place where I built my career and I have been given nothing but support here?”
Margolius determined it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and he would regret not taking the chance. He did not have to search far in his memory to recall a similar situation; a mentor at The Warren Alpert Medical School had once urged him to head west to do the same.
During a third-year community health rotation, Margolius connected with the Rhode Island Free Clinic, one of the clinical sites for the clerkship. Research into the primary care shortage in the US introduced him to a couple of leading voices who were addressing the issue in San Francisco. He reached out to Thomas Bodenheimer, MD, founding director of the Center for Excellence in Primary Care at the University of California, San Francisco. Margolius had a question: would you have a place for me? Bodenheimer wrote back a single word: “Absolutely!”
Margolius immediately contacted trusted advisers at Brown. “Dr. Jeff Borkan [former chair of Family Medicine]said, ‘Go for it! Please. You can’t miss this opportunity. That is an incredible group of people out there and this will change your life.’”
He moved to San Francisco and found out Borkan was correct. An opportunity to work in the intersection between primary care and public health was not the only life-changing moment Margolius experienced. “I did my residency there and I met my wife the first week of that intern year,” he says. “She was working as a health care administrator. Fast forward a few years. We got married and we were trying to figure out where to move.”
The answer: Cleveland. The couple moved there in the summer of 2015, which led to new challenges for Margolius. His leadership responsibilities with MetroHealth grew, and in 2020 he became the division director for Internal Medicine. “We had our first three COVID cases in Cleveland on March 9, 2020,” Margolius says. “I put a team together to start a 24/7 COVID hotline. On March 13 at 11 a.m., we launched and have never stopped with that hotline.”
Being director of public health for Cleveland means overseeing air quality, dealing with issues ranging from lead poisoning to food safety to toxic waste disposal, in addition to more classic health issues, such as reducing rates of smoking and the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease. “It’s a fairly large bucket and I am going to learn a ton— hopefully quickly,” Margolius says. “I have not had a chance to learn so many new things so quickly since Brown.”
One issue stands out to Margolius. “Cleveland has one of the highest rates of lead poisoning in our children in the country,” he says. “That is due to old housing— houses built before lead was banned from paint. There has been a lot of collaboration around eliminating lead poisoning here. We cannot rest until that is something of the past. Lead causes irreversible impairment in children as a neurotoxin.”
Margolius credits the Program in Liberal Medical Education for not holding him to one career track. He was never locked into being a particular kind of medical student or physician, but mentors were always there to keep him focused on his work.
“My attending almost every week during my VA hospital clinical rotations was Dr. Amos Charles [clinical associate professor of medicine],” Margolius says. “He was always pushing me to be better. When I came back from San Francisco and did my sub-internship at the VA, he pulled me aside at one point and said, ‘David, you’re coasting. Shape up.’ Gathering his wits to tell me to keep pushing … he is that voice.”