Alumni Spotlight: Cherisse Berry Cesar '94, M.D., FACS

This month’s spotlight is on Cherisse Berry Cesar ’94, MD, FACS. Cherisse, who specializes in trauma and acute care surgery, is practicing in New York City and also serves as an assistant professor of surgery at New York University. ​​Cherisse shares about her experience at PHS, how it shaped her and working as a doctor in New York during COVID.

Her credentials include:
Diplomate of the American Board of Surgery
Governor, American College of Surgeons, Manhattan Council
Associate Trauma Medical Director – Bellevue Hospital
Medical Director – Tisch Hospital, Kimmel Pavilion, Inpatient Surgery

Assistant Professor of Surgery
Department of Surgery
Division of Acute Care Surgery
NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Undergraduate: Johns Hopkins University - bachelor of art's degree in neuroscience with a minor in French
Graduate: Harvard University – master's degree in biology
Medical School: University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine
General Surgery Residency: Cedars Sinai Medical Center (Los Angeles)
Acute Care Surgery Fellowship and Trauma Research Fellowship: University of Maryland/ R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center

Q: What is your favorite PHS memory?

My favorite memory of being a student at PHS was the annual May Day/Field Day festivities. I have such fond memories of my pink dress, the wreaths and the May Pole.

Q: What teachers/people were the biggest influence of your time at PHS?

A: In sixth grade, science teacher Bill Wilson had the biggest influence on me. I will never forget his dedication and unyielding support for my love for science. I remember staying at school until 1 a.m. with my mom and Dr. Wilson finishing up my poster for a science fair project. He invested his time in ensuring that I was successful.

Q: What is the most important thing you learned at PHS?

A: Freedom with responsibility; the importance of analysis and critical thinking; and always strive for excellence.

Q: What led you to study medicine?

A: I have known since I was 5-years-old that I wanted to be a physician. As the first physician in my family, I did not have a direct connection to the field of medicine; however, I knew early on that becoming a physician was my destiny.

Q: Why did you decide to specialize in trauma and acute care surgery?

A: Acute care surgery includes trauma, emergency general surgery and surgical critical care. As a trauma and acute care surgeon, I have the honor and privilege of taking care of the severely injured patient who sustained a gunshot wound to the abdomen or was hit by a train in the subway, the non-injured patient who requires emergency general surgery or the critically ill patient in the ICU. Every day is different and is met with its own unique challenges. Not knowing what surgical emergency will come through the door at any moment of any given day and feeling confident in taking care of that patient, is truly the hallmark of our field.

Q: Are there any lessons you learned at PHS that help you as an assistant professor of surgery at New York University Grossman School of Medicine?

A: Determination, tenacity and the importance of having a strong work ethic.

Q: What has it been like to practice medicine during a global pandemic?

A: It has certainly been quite challenging for many reasons. First, while you want to be in the trenches so to speak, taking care of all of these critically ill patients, you worry about your own vulnerability of not only becoming infected with the virus but bringing the virus home to your family, which for me was my worst nightmare. I developed a daily routine where I would come home from work through our garage. My work clothes and shoes never entered our house, and I would shower in our basement before coming upstairs to see my family.

Second, we saw and took care of many sick patients. It was exceptionally tough to see and hear about fellow colleagues on the front lines who were sick or succumbed to this virus. Finally, the politicization of the virus, mask wearing, social distancing and the vaccine were all just infuriating. When you are on the front lines and you see exactly what this virus can and will do to previously healthy individuals, you want to scream to the public and to our leaders, never politicize a public health crisis. Follow the data, believe in science and get vaccinated.

Q: Tell us about your experience in New York during COVID?

A: COVID hit New York City hard last year. Our peak was in March and April of 2020. Every hospital in the city reached or nearly reached bed capacity with COVID patients. Our hospital, like many hospitals, had to convert areas of the hospital -- including operating rooms -- into patient rooms just to accommodate the influx of patients. Physicians from every specialty signed up to help in the Emergency Department and in our ICUs. We were giving crash courses in ICU care to our colleagues because the demand was so high. The patients with severe COVID were some of the sickest patients I have ever seen in my entire career. They were old, young and from various different racial and ethnic backgrounds. This virus does not discriminate. What saved us a city was that the volume of trauma and other surgical/medical/neurological emergencies were significantly down. Had those volumes not gone down or even worse, had gone up, I am not sure how the city would have had the capacity to handle that.

Q: What advice do you have for young alumni just getting started and finding their career?

A: Never give up on your dreams and your passions. Ignore the noise of discouragement from others. Your path in life may not be linear, but that’s OK because it’s your own unique path. Every challenge encountered and every opportunity presented prepares you for the next phase of your life’s journey.

Q: What do most people not know about you?

A: I am a strong advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice. While I am a surgeon scientist committed not only to the pursuit of excellence through patient care, education and research, I am also committed to ending racial and ethnic disparities within academic medicine and to closing the gap in achieving health equity.

Q: What do you do in your spare time?

A: With two small sons (Jaden who is 4 years old and Christian who is 20 months old) at home, I do not have a lot of spare time. However, I have recently gotten in to cycling. I love my Peleton!