If you’ve watched a Bucks playoff game, you may have seen him: a guy with green hair in the highly visible lower seats. He constantly jumps up and down, yells at the refs and frantically waves his right arm back and forth in an arc over his head, like a lobster with its claw. His antics are so over-the-top, an usher once threatened to eject him; he’s attracted coverage not only on the Fiserv Forum videoboard but from ESPN and local media outlets.
This manic superfan has an alter ego. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – the superfan is his alter ego. Either way, the guy with the green hair is Dr. David A. Margolis, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist. He is a professor and the interim chair of pediatrics and program director of the Bone Marrow Transplant* and Cellular Therapy Program at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He is also interim pediatrician-in-chief at Children’s Wisconsin.
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Margolis is, in other words, a heavy hitter in the medical world. And, sometimes, a goofball.
“It’s entertaining when people figure out that the idiot ‘Arm Guy’ is a doctor who treats kids with cancer and other blood disorders,” he says.
A few years ago, Margolis began promising his patients that if the Bucks made the playoffs, the kids could spray paint his hair Bucks colors: bright green, deep blue. It’s not at all his style, and the spray is cold and smells terrible, but Margolis says the opportunity to “spray the doc” gives his patients a goal. “Kids need to be kids, and to look forward to something,” he says, “especially when they’re dealing with difficult treatments and a long hospital stay.”
These are very sick kids. Although the one-year survival rate at Children’s hovers around 88.6%, that means that 11.4% do not survive. “It’s life-or-death treatment,” Margolis says. “I talk about death with every patient.”
But that part comes later. The minute they meet, Margolis asks his young patients about themselves: their hobbies, the music they like, their goals in life. He insists they call him Dr. Dave, not Dr. Margolis. He often carries a squirt gun in his white lab coat. He has been known to announce himself at a patient’s door, “Hi, it’s Dr. Ding Dong.”
“He knows how to work with kids,” says Jake Larkin, one of Dr. Ding Dong’s former patients. “He’s very animated, not doctor-y and dull.”
“Dave is just a big kid himself, as well as being an incredibly talented doctor,” says his longtime friend Mike Levey, a partner at the Quarles & Brady law firm. “There’s no pretense about him. That’s why he can relate to kids so well.”
THE “BIG KID” IS 60 YEARS OLD, tall and lean, and he carries a boyish demeanor despite white hair and granny glasses. He lives in Mequon with his wife of 34 years, Jody, a recently retired special education teacher, and not far from their two adult daughters, Rachel and Melissa.
Even beyond the Bucks, he’s a huge sports fan; one tabletop in his office is filled with sports bobbleheads, and he’s been known to dash off to Green Bay on a moment’s notice with Rachel or Melissa when extra Packers tickets fall into his lap.
He credits his ability to relate to kids – and people, generally – to his parents, attorney Marvin and community volunteer Ann. The oldest of three boys, he says he was blessed to grow up in Whitefish Bay, with its “great backyards and awesome sledding hill.” His high school drama teacher gave him confidence about speaking in front of others.
Margolis also credits his Jewish faith with providing him with family-centered values: honoring one’s parents, being a good spouse and parent. “I’m not that religious, but I am spiritual,” he says. “Our traditions have kept the Jewish people going for centuries.”
His connection to the Bucks goes back to childhood, when Herb Kohl, a friend of Marvin’s, purchased the team. Marvin bought season tickets and took Dave to many a game. In addition, Dave’s grandfather ran a parking lot across from the MECCA arena, where the Bucks then played. As a teenager, Margolis parked cars for fans going to see Don Nelson’s Bucks.
Greg Marcus, president & CEO of The Marcus Corp. and a buddy of Margolis’ since early childhood, remembers his friend’s empathy showing at a young age. Marcus recalls being a senior in high school and headed for Indiana University, where Margolis, two years older, was enrolled. Margolis stopped by to say, “If you need anything, I’m there for you.”
“We’re talking about two teenage boys here,” Marcus says. “Our frontal lobe had not yet formed! Yet Dave had the maturity to say that – and follow through on it. I ended up in his fraternity and had a great four years at IU, thanks to him.”
Margolis originally wanted to be a lawyer like his dad, but Marvin didn’t think his son was smart enough to finish at the top of his law school class. He told his son, “What do they call the guy who finishes last in his medical school class? ‘Doctor!’”
So Margolis majored in chemistry and Spanish at Indiana, meeting Jody there, before he came back to Wisconsin for medical school at UW-Madison. A former camp counselor, he was drawn to pediatrics. In 1992, he completed a residency in pediatrics, and, in 1995, a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology, both back in his hometown, at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Margolis was primarily a researcher early in his career, working in a lab at the Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin. “I’ll be forever grateful to them,” he says. “Working there taught me how to think like a basic scientist.”
After eight years as a researcher, Margolis, wanting to work with people rather than compete for grants, transitioned to patient care and education. One of his mentors was Dr. James Casper, a professor of hematology and oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “Jim was the perfect blend of intellectual curiosity and relationships,” Margolis recalls.
Casper recognized Margolis’ talents early on. “He’s a very confident person, and passionate. When he undertakes something, he goes at it whole-hog,” says Casper, who’s now retired. “Whenever he’d be on call, I wouldn’t worry about my patients because Dave was so on top of things.”
Margolis credits Casper with a key skill outside of the clinical setting: maintaining work-life balance. “Dave is a workaholic, but he never missed one of our girls’ soccer games or ballet recitals,” Jody recalls. “Most nights, he was even there for bath time.”
We hear a lot of things about Dr. David Margolis. We asked him to weigh in:
You’ve known Herb Kohl since you were a kid because he and your father were friends. Do you call him Herbie?
Deny. My dad called him Herb. For most of my life, I called him Mr. Kohl, then Senator Kohl.
You took a course on basketball coaching from the legendary Bobby Knight.
Confirm! Best course I took at Indiana University!
Your urologist colleague Dr. Jay Sandlow says you drive like an old lady and won’t ride with him because he’s a “crazy driver.”
Confirm. I try to drive very safely.
As an affectionate practical joke, one of your former patients brought back scummy pond water from camp and dumped it on your shoes.
Absolute confirm. What better way to make your doctor’s life miserable?
TODAY, MEDICAL SCHOOLS emphasize to their doctors-in-training that they must humanize their patients; they must not see just a disease, but also a person. Margolis knew this intuitively and developed what he calls the “whole-person approach” to medicine. “Our patients are humans who just happen to be our patients,” he says.
Nurse-clinician Heather Seager has seen this approach up close, having worked with Margolis since 1995. “Dave never forgets that a patient is a child who wants to do kid things,” she says. “He encourages our team to help make their lives as normal as possible.”
Sometimes this involves bending the rules. For some patients, it’s shopping, for others attending a sports event or going to prom. “If we can get a kid to Summerfest, the Brewers, Miley Cyrus, we do it!” Margolis says. “Sure, there are risks, but there is a risk in not doing it. A kid needs a reason to live, to be in the game.”
To that end, Margolis partnered with JCC Rainbow Day Camp in Fredonia to allow his patients and their siblings to attend. It’s open to all kids – not a “cancer camp” – so patients who attend need to be well enough, in the judgment of their care providers. Over the years, the camp has expanded to include kids from the cardiology, rheumatology and burn clinics at Children’s.
The Flannery family of Whitefish Bay will be forever grateful to Margolis for arranging for their daughter, Colleen, then 8 and being treated for acute lymphoblasctic leukemia,** to make her First Communion. “Dr. Dave is Jewish, yet he knew how much Colleen’s First Communion meant to Colleen and our family,” says her dad, Brian. “He said he’d figure it out.” He also helped safely arrange a family trip to Cape Cod, working with a nearby hospital to make sure Colleen could have her IV checked.
Margolis has a habit of deflecting credit and praise away from himself and to his team of nurses, radiologists, hematologists and a host of other professionals. “Dave expects a lot out of his team, but he also gives everyone a lot of respect,” says Seager. “He takes whatever input we give into consideration. To him, I’m not ‘just a nurse.’”
Since Margolis began practicing, cure rates for pediatric cancers have risen from 20% to 80%, depending on the type. One such advance has been in treating chronic myelogenous leukemia; when Margolis was in training, the only treatment was a bone marrow transplant, and survival rates were 50% to 80%. Now an oral chemotherapy drug has almost eliminated the need for a bone marrow transplant, and the survival rates are over 90%. The survival rate for aplastic anemia*** has increased from 25% to 90%.
How You Can Help
Margolis highlights these organizations that support his work with kids with cancer.
- Be the Match – Registry of volunteer stem cell donors and umbilical cord blood in the United States
- Center for International Blood & Marrow Transplant Research – International donor database of 17 million people
- MACC Fund’s Center For Cancer and Blood Disorders
- Children’s Wisconsin Foundation
- Ronald McDonald House
- Make-a-Wish Foundation
He’s gratified by the progress in his field. “But 80% doesn’t cut it,” Margolis says emphatically. “Our goal is 100%. We need to continue to do research to figure out a way to get these kids to survive. Kids dying keeps us humble.” Plus, the treatments typically have brutal side effects: nausea, vomiting, hair loss, headaches, unrelenting hiccups, coughing, fever, burns from radiation. He hopes to find ways to mitigate those effects.
Over the years, Margolis and his team have become nationally known for performing groundbreaking procedures before they become commonplace elsewhere. As a result, families from all over the U.S. have come to Milwaukee so their kids can receive treatment at Children’s.
One is the Larkin-Cluff family, whose son, Jake, was diagnosed with aplastic anemia in 2012, at age 5. Although Jake was receiving excellent treatment at a San Francisco hospital, his parents felt it was not the right place. “We quickly learned that when a child gets sick, the entire family is involved,” says Jake’s mom, Kimberly Cluff. “It becomes your whole world. Yet that hospital made us feel inadequate and unwelcome, not heard – sometimes literally, because we couldn’t get through on the phone.”
When Cluff researched thought leaders in the treatment of her son’s illness, Margolis’ name kept surfacing. The family relocated here for almost a year, living at the Ronald McDonald House while Jake’s immune system was reduced to zero with chemotherapy, then rebooted with a bone marrow transplant from a donor in England. “At Children’s, our family felt welcomed and supported, and an integral part of Jake’s treatment,” she recalls. “Dr. Dave even gave us his personal cell phone number.”
Jake Larkin, now 16, is one of the 80% of patients that Margolis and his team were able to cure. So is Colleen Flannery, now 27 and working as an adult oncology nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “The nurses at Children’s spent so much time with me, I knew that as an adult, I wanted to provide the kind of excellent medical and emotional care that I received,” she says.
Both Jake and Colleen are at risk for a secondary cancer because of their treatments, so they have to be regularly monitored, sometimes with blood work and cancer screenings – not to mention being extra careful during flu season and about COVID. That said, they are both living busy, fulfilling lives.
Not all of Margolis’ patients are so fortunate. Ian Lang died in June 2021 at 18 of complications of Ewing sarcoma**** – despite over three years of fighting fiercely. “Ian told us to do whatever it took,” says his mother, Hillary. “He wanted so much to stay with us.” Despite the tragic outcome, Hillary and her family have nothing but praise for Margolis. “He knew what he was doing, and he had our back in every single situation.”
Supporting families whose child does not survive is one of the toughest parts of Margolis’ job, yet he doesn’t shrink from it. “Working with the family whose child has passed away is one of the most challenging aspects of being a pediatric oncologist,” he says, “yet one of the most rewarding. We are honored to share that journey with a family.”
“He is always honest with patients and families, and he delivers bad news with compassion and empathy,” says Lynnette Anderson, a pediatric nurse practitioner who has worked with Margolis since 1997. “He stays with them during the whole process: answering questions, providing advice, talking to siblings.”
Says Margolis: “I’m honored to still be in touch with a number of families whose children did not survive. And I’m lucky to have great relationships with the kids who have survived, and their families.” Many of them let him know when they graduate from college, get married, have their own kids. Margolis’ office is filled with tributes from these families: photos, drawings, thank-you cards.
IT’S ALL A LOT TO HANDLE, and Margolis says becoming the “Arm Guy” at Bucks games is one way he decompresses from the stress of the job. Another is cranking up the music during his commutes. “He and Bruce Springsteen are best friends in the car,” Jody says. “It’s so loud, I can hear him pulling up in the driveway, even in winter with the windows closed.”
Despite the challenges, Margolis loves his work, including his role as an administrative leader, recruiting younger doctors to, hopefully, have the same impact he has had. He has no plans to retire any time soon, but he will when he no longer feels he’s at the top of his game. “Right now, I’ve got the best gig in the world,” he says. “It’s an honor to practice medicine.”
Carolyn Kott Washburne has written profiles of Reuben Harpole, Julia Taylor and David Gruber.
*Bone marrow transplant
This is similar to a blood transfusion: healthy bone marrow cells (stem cells) are infused through a vein. The cells can be the recipient’s own or those of a donor. After the transplant, patients typically remain in the hospital for three to four weeks while the bone marrow regenerates; total recovery can take three to 18 months.
**Acute lymphoblastic leukemia
A type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow; it is the most common type of childhood cancer. Diagnosis of it and other childhood blood diseases is sometimes delayed because their initial symptoms – fatigue, stomachache, headache, body aches, sore throat, lower back pain, bruising, tenderness – are similar to those of less serious illnesses.
A form of bone marrow failure in which the body stops producing enough new blood cells.
A cancer that most often occurs in bones and soft tissue, typically in children and young adults.