Dr. Phillip Lieberman's Early Interest in Writing Has Served Him Well
As a student at Central High School in Memphis, Phillip Lieberman was the sports editor of the student newspaper, The Warrior, and had serious designs on becoming a sportswriter.
He applied for a Grantland Rice Fellowship in Journalism, named for the legendary Murfreesboro-born sportswriter, a prestigious prize that perhaps would have launched his career in sports.
"I didn't get it, though, and that shifted my career away from journalism and toward medicine," said Dr. Phillip Lieberman, a specialist in allergies and immunology for nearly 50 years. "And writing has been part of what I've enjoyed doing in my medical career. I've had somewhere near 300 publications now."
His enviable fallback career from sports writing to medicine is actually not as unlikely as it might seem.
"I'm the first one in my family to go into medicine, but it had always been in the back of my mind," Dr. Lieberman said. "I grew up next door in the 1940s to a medical student, Hugh Murray, at UT College of Medicine in an apartment at 244 South Cleveland. He took an interest in me, and he was one of the kindest people I ever met.
"I would help him study anatomy. He would bring a box of bones, and I would pull one out and have the identification in front of me. I would quiz him daily on his knowledge of the anatomy. That got me interested in medicine at a very early age."
The other factor that influenced his career path in medicine was being an asthma sufferer himself.
"It creates an empathy with patients that couldn't occur otherwise because you've actually experienced the same symptoms," Dr. Lieberman said. "You can have sympathy regardless, but it's hard to have empathy without having experienced the same problems at some time."
Asthma is a chronic disease that inflames the airways and leads to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, rapid breathing and chest tightness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 25 million Americans have asthma, and it's the leading chronic disease in children.
There is no cure for asthma, but it can be managed with proper treatment and management. It remains one of the country's most common and costly diseases. Roughly 10 people die every day from asthma.
Allergies occur when the body's immune system overreacts to a foreign substance called an allergen. The substance might be something you eat, inhale, inject or touch, and cause coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes, a runny nose or a scratchy throat.
An estimated 50 million people are affected by allergies, according to the CDC. In severe cases, it might cause rashes, low blood pressure, hives, breathing problems, asthma attacks or even death. Like asthma, there is no cure for allergies, but they can be managed.
But take a deep breath. Not all the news with asthma and allergies is bad.
Since he began his career in 1971, Dr. Lieberman has witnessed - and been a part of - tremendous strides in the treatment of patients with asthma and allergies.
'There have been incredible, astonishing advances," said Dr. Lieberman, former president of both the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and the American Association of Certified Allergists.
"The tools that we have now have increased in efficacy so dramatically that the vast majority of asthmatics are well controlled. Whereas when I started there were a very significant number of asthmatics where that control was unachievable."
He attributes the advances to two things: basic science research which has helped physicians better understand the basic pathophysiology of the disease and the pharmaceutical industry taking advantage of that research to develop drugs that target that underlying pathogenesis
"For example, we've now learned which chemicals the body produces that that create an internal milieu that fosters the development of asthma and makes it more severe," Dr. Lieberman said. "Because of that, we're learning about the basic science underlying the disease, and that has allowed the drug companies to create monoclonal antibodies that directly target those chemicals.
"We can now inactivate those chemicals that produce the disease using these antibodies, and that has been a game changer for severe asthmatics."
Being a specialist in asthma and allergies in Memphis means never running out of patients. Memphis traditionally ranks near the top in annual worst cities to live in for asthma and allergy sufferers, a ranking conducted by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
"Memphis is allergen rich," Dr. Lieberman noted. "We have rich and dense flora that produces pollen in great abundance and that produces more symptoms."
His practice, Allergy & Asthma Care, has five doctors and three nurse practitioners, with locations in Germantown, Collierville, Southaven, Bartlett and Jackson, Tenn.
Dr. Lieberman began his career as head of the allergy section at the University of Tennessee Medical School's Department of Medicine, going straight from his fellowship to chair of the section. After 10 years, he went into private practice, first at the 920 Madison building, then a move to Cordova and another move to his present location on Wolf River Boulevard in Germantown.
"I've been very fortunate to have some great associates and nurse practitioners over the years," he said.
His view of the future in the field of asthma and allergies is mostly positive, though not entirely so.
"The area of science and the improvement of our ability to care for patients has a very optimistic future," said Dr. Lieberman. "The gains we've made are minor miracles, and I think we are going to gain even further in the future. We have a group of very dedicated scientists who keep carrying us forward at an increasingly rapid rate. That part is going to be good."
But he sees nagging problems of healthcare costs and bureaucracy as problems that continue to hinder patient care.
"Socioeconomic factors, the bureaucracy involved and the difficulties in overcoming costs are going to continue to give us trouble, I'm afraid, for quite a long time," he said. "It's very difficult because of the nature of our society to institute the new therapies that we have available.
"We now need the equivalent of a fulltime person just to be able to go through all the hoops required to obtain some of the agents that we now use to treat our patients. The costs have exploded and therefore the controls have increased, so it's a real challenge now to be able to offer the ability we have to care for these patients. I'm less optimistic about our ability to control costs, but I'm very optimistic about our ability to develop more and better drugs."
He and wife Barbara have been married nearly 50 years. They have three well-educated sons - Ryan, a lawyer and MBA; Lee, a CPA and MBA; and Jay, an allergist like his father.
During his internal medicine residency, Dr. Lieberman and roommate Walter Allison dated and then married the Broz twins - Barbara and Martha from Doniphan, a small town in the Missouri Bootheel.
Three decades later, the two couples traveled to the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas to renew their vows.
"We did it because we both had very small home weddings without any bridal gowns or parties," Dr. Lieberman recalled. "We decided our wives really deserved to have a more ceremonial bride hood."