Noel Bairey Merz, MD, has a stellar academic background, including degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard Medical School. But she jokes that she got a crucial boost in her pioneering research into women's heart disease by learning from someone with a different sort of pedigree.
Noel Bairey Merz, MD
That would be the legendary bank robber Willie Sutton. When an interviewer asked Sutton why he robbed ranks, he supposedly replied: "Because that’s where the money is."
Even early in her career, Bairey Merz, as a rare woman in the male-dominated field of cardiology, was drawn to investigating the mysteries of women's health. But she said the clincher was where $500 million in new research money was in the early 1990s: the new Women’s Health Initiative of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
NIH officials "recognized that we should be taking care of everyone. We should be making discoveries that improve human health, not just mankind's," Bairey Merz said, making a favorite point. "52% of the world is female."
Bairey Merz went on to become a towering figure in her field and, in honor of her accomplishments, on Monday, Nov. 2, she was named winner of Cedars-Sinai’s annual Pioneer in Medicine award. Bairey Merz—whose multiple titles at Cedars-Sinai include director of the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center in the Smidt Heart Institute—"has single-handedly established Cedars-Sinai as the world's leading center in women's heart disease," wrote Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, executive director of the Smidt Heart Institute, in his letter nominating Bairey Merz for the award.
Marban added that "her success in securing a $25 million gift from Barbra Streisand to name the Women's Heart Center has arguably done more than any other single gift in Cedars-Sinai's history to boost our national and international image."
Bairey Merz grew up mostly in Modesto, California, where her father worked for the local daily newspaper after his service in the Air Force.
She was fascinated by science even as a youngster, and growing up in her largely agricultural community, "the closest thing that I could see to a scientist was a doctor." Going into medicine also was appealing because, in her town, "you knew who the doctors were, they were your neighbors. They were good people, upstanding people in the community."
"My family was always about that," added Bairey Merz, a professor of Medicine. "What did you do today to make the world a better place?"
Long before making a splash in medical research, Bairey Merz also distinguished herself as one of the nation's top women's freestyle swimmers. In 1973, she was one of the very first U.S. women to win a college athletic scholarship, an achievement that put her on the cover of Parade Magazine. Her destination was the University of Chicago, a heavyweight academic institution that quickly embraced Title IX, the 1972 anti-discrimination law that spurred more participation by women in school sports.
At the time, she recalls, the University of Chicago was known as "the place where fun goes to die." But Bairey Merz said she loved the emphasis on the life of the mind. That especially was true after she got a summer job as a lab technician for a female cardiologist then on the faculty, Suzanne Oparil, MD, and witnessed her life as an academic.
"She traveled. She networked with people. She did research," Bairey Merz recounted. "She saw patients—she was the cardiologist to the president of the University of Chicago."
It wasn't until Harvard Medical School, though, that Bairey Merz was sure cardiology was for her. It was still a relatively new specialty in medicine, she said, and "it was just very, very exciting" because "cardiology was saving lives."
"We had treatments. We had therapies, and they were investigating and finding new stuff all the time."
At Harvard she met her future husband, Robert Merz, MD, also a cardiologist. They have three grown daughters—two are MDs and a third is a PhD. Bairey Merz and her husband both did their medical residencies at University of California, San Francisco, and both went on to fellowships at Cedars-Sinai. While her husband went into private practice, Bairey Merz has stayed on an academic track and never left Cedars-Sinai.
Although heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death among women and Americans overall, researchers and clinicians long thought of it as mainly a problem for men. Even today, heart disease in women continues to go undetected because of ignorance of the different symptoms that women often present.
Yet Bairey Merz played a big role in turning the tide. In breakthrough research, Bairey Merz discovered that women, much more often than men, suffer heart disease not due to the clogging of major coronary arteries but because of coronary microvascular dysfunction—the dysfunction of small blood vessels. The affliction often is missed because the symptoms, such as fatigue and shortness of breath, are less obvious indicators—and don't match the widely recognized symptoms more common among men.
Bairey Merz's findings helped catapult her to national leadership in women's heart disease research. She has been involved in more than 300 peer-reviewed studies, and her 203-page CV is filled with honors. She also is chair and primary investigator of what’s known as the Women’s Ischemia Syndrome Evaluation, or WISE, study, trailblazing research sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Her proudest professional accomplishment, Bairey Merz said, probably is developing the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center. Bairey Merz identified it as the only women's heart health center "that really does the tripartite mission of academic medicine, which is clinical care, research and education." She said it also works with a policy organization co-founded by Barbra Streisand, the Women's Heart Alliance, to cut the time lag between new discoveries and their adoption in medical practices around the country. On the federal level, it advocates for more funding for research.
She pursued her relationship with Streisand after reading a Los Angeles Times story saying that the singer-actor-director was going on tour and would donate the proceeds to a women's health cause. Bairey Merz was caring for a friend of Streisand's at the time, and handed him a packet of development materials to give her. As Bairey Merz explained in an interview with Medscape in 2018, the patient was forgetful, and it took several tries before the packet was delivered.
About two years later, when Bairey Merz was attending a conference in Philadelphia and getting ready to go to sleep at her hotel, the room phone rang and the operator said, "Please hold for Barbra Streisand."
"I almost hung up, because I thought it was a practical joke," Bairey Merz recalled. "But it really was Barbra Streisand. We chatted for about one hour, and that was the beginning of our relationship."
Notwithstanding all of the recognition she's previously received, Bairey Merz said winning the annual Pioneer in Medicine award "is very meaningful. This is a plaque that I walk by on the Plaza Level every day. It is filled with incredibly distinguished names that have really made discovery, improved our patients' lives, added to the reputation of our medical center."
"To join that long list," she said, "is just fabulous."