At medical center, every day is Father's Day for Berquist family

- By Erin Digitale

Norbert von der Groeben Berquist clan

Working at the medical center is a family affair for the Berquist clan: pediatric gastroenterologist Bill Berquist (in tie) with daughters Kari (left), a psychologist, and Rebecca, a pediatric gastroenterologist; and son Sean, a research assistant.

For pediatric gastroenterologist Bill Berquist, MD, the phrase “works with children” has a double meaning. Not only does Berquist treat kids with digestive and liver problems, he also works closely with a different group of young people — three of his grown children, who are following in his scientific footsteps at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and the School of Medicine.

In honor of the upcoming Father’s Day holiday, the three second-generation scientists recently joined their dad to chat about growing up in a household where tagging along to the hospital was as ordinary as a trip to the beach or a family badminton game, and where the digestive system was discussed in detail at the dinner table.

“I think what’s neat about the field of gastroenterology is that it’s just so diverse,” said Rebecca Berquist McKenzie, MD, now 33 and a clinical instructor in pediatric gastroenterology. As a kid, she was captivated by the dramatic before-and-after change seen in the liver transplant recipients in Bill’s care.

“I remember looking at liver slides and going to endoscopies — I thought it was really cool,” added Kari Berquist, PhD, now 31 and a clinical instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. She studies and treats autism.

“I loved ‘Take your daughter or son to work day,’” said Sean Berquist, now 25. “I liked getting a sense of how a clinician interacts with patients. It was one of my favorite days of the year.” Sean, who plans to attend medical school, is a research assistant in Kari’s lab.

“Sometimes he has to refer to me as ‘Dr. Berquist,’ which is really weird,” Kari said. All four Berquists cracked up. “And people always go, ‘Is that your brother? That’s so great!’”

Although Bill is a professor of pediatric gastroenterology and his wife is a nurse, they had no desire to force a medical career on any of their children, he said. He’s enthusiastic about the career in tax law of his eldest son, Eric.

But Bill’s voice also fills with enjoyment as he describes his professional collaborations with his kids. He sometimes sees the same patients as his daughters; they have joint scientific projects, too.

Before she went to medical school, Becca conducted research on a thorny problem among adolescent liver-transplant recipients. Wanting independence, these teens would rebel by stopping their medications, which threatened their transplanted livers and their lives. Five years ago, Bill used Becca’s findings as the impetus to start a teen clinic that helps adolescent patients take charge of their own care. The clinic has served as a model for how to treat chronically ill adolescents. “It’s a real team approach,” Bill said.

Meanwhile, Kari and Bill recently gave a joint presentation on gastrointestinal problems and autism at a Packard Children’s educational symposium for parents. (“She was a star,” said Bill.) Kids with autism can have severe medical and behavioral problems around food that are hard to tease apart, Kari said, adding, “Sometimes the child’s pediatrician will say there’s no problem, and I’ll say, ‘No, this is not normal; you have to go to a gastroenterologist who understands this issue.’” Resolving a medical problem recently allowed one of her 9-year-old patients to be toilet trained, for instance. “It’s lucky that I’ve gotten some of that information from a medical background,” she said.

Sean is still charting his scientific course — he studied echolocation in bats as an undergraduate, then became attracted to communication problems in autism when Kari was doing her dissertation research. “That led me to have my own desire to go into medicine and to be a translational scientist,” he said.

For all the family’s scientific focus, science has never been the sole priority among the Berquists, however.

“When you were younger, I know your hours were really long, but we never felt that way,” Becca said to her dad. Bill came home for dinner, coached the kids’ sports teams, took them to ET and Star Wars at the local drive-in. “I think that’s huge because you need to have mentors who do all those things well,” Becca said.

Bill agrees that balancing work with the rest of life was the lesson he most wanted his children to absorb. “Having children was a very positive thing for me to look forward to,” he said. “Early in my career, when I was at UCLA, some of the faculty didn’t see it that way and felt like you had to be there at all hours. I really insisted upon that balance.”

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