A child cancer patient spray paints David Margolis' hair green

“There’s smoke coming out of your hair!” exclaims 11-year-old Jaida, with far more glee than concern.

She’s carefully applying the finishing touches on today’s spray-painting canvas: the once-gray hair and now-freezing scalp of pediatrician David Margolis MD’89 — or “Dr. Dave,” as his patients endearingly call him at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “I think when you grow up, you might want to be a hairstylist,” Margolis tells her.

For the moment, Jaida’s cancer diagnosis is far from her mind, which means Dr. Dave is doing his job.

The bright green hair color is a show of support for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks from perhaps their biggest superfan. Before every home game in the playoffs, Margolis encourages his patients to spray-paint his hair the team’s colors. As the director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy Program at the children’s hospital and a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Margolis stands by a simple ethos: let kids be kids — especially when they’re facing the physical toll and isolation of a long hospital stay.

Margolis, who’s been recognized since 2006 as one of the best doctors in America in a peer poll, makes it a priority to get to know his patients. He quizzes them on their hobbies and the music that populates their Spotify accounts. A “big kid” himself, as a resident, he carried a squirt gun in the front pocket of his white coat. And he’s helped to develop a summer day camp, where patients can break away from the monotony and enjoy the outdoors. “You need to know what makes a kid tick,” Margolis says. “You need to figure out their goal for living. You need to know what keeps them in the game.”

With major advancements in treatment, the five-year survival rate for children with cancer has risen above 80 percent, according to the American Cancer Society; 50 years ago, the rate was closer to 50 percent. While the numbers give Margolis hope for the future, they offer little reprieve when he’s treating a patient. “To a family, it’s 0 or 100 percent,” he says.

His medical training has guided his approach — leading with empathy and treating the whole person, not just the disease. As a student at the UW, he worked closely with pediatrics professors Memee Chun and Paul Sondel ’71, PhD’75. Margolis credits them for showing him the importance of a close doctor–patient relationship — “Our job is 99 percent communication,” he says — and for instilling a passion for training the next generation of pediatricians.

Like his patients, Margolis seeks occasional distractions from the high stakes of cancer treatment. His lifelong love of basketball and the Bucks has served him well.

David Margolis at a Milwaukee Bucks basketball game

Margolis “out of control” at the 2019 NBA playoffs: Bucks fans are surprised to learn that the colorful character in the stands is a highly respected doctor. Gary Dineen/Getty Images

When he was growing up, his grandfather ran a parking lot next to the team’s arena, where Margolis rubbed elbows with players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. He attended nearly every home game with his father (“I remember Kareem throwing his Gatorade down and getting splashed,” he says), a tradition he now shares with his wife and children. When he was an undergraduate at Indiana University, his favorite class was a 1.5-credit course on coaching basketball, taught by legendary NCAA coach Bob Knight. “I learned to play to the strengths and go away from weaknesses,” he says, noting that it’s a lesson he applied to his career when he changed his focus from the laboratory bench to translational research and patient care.

Dr. Dave has become something of a cult hero among Bucks fans, who are surprised to learn that the colorful fan they see on TV is a highly respected doctor. “There are a bunch of 20-year-old guys who follow me on Twitter, which is rather humorous,” he says, adding that the unexpected fame is “horribly embarrassing” for his family.

His demeanor at games? “Oh, sometimes not so good,” Margolis responds, laughing. “The best word is passionate. Other words that have been used? Crazy. Out of control.” He banters with referees. To fire up the crowd, he pulls out a patented move, “The Claw” — an exaggerated one-armed wave that extends over the back of his head. The team embraces his antics, projecting a “Dr. Dave Wave Cam” on the scoreboard that encourages other fans to imitate the move. Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo even reciprocated the arm wave when he spotted Margolis parallel parking in downtown Milwaukee.

Margolis combines his passions through his advocacy for the Midwest Athletes against Childhood Cancer (MACC) Fund. The organization, established in 1976 by former Bucks player Jon McGlocklin and longtime broadcaster Eddie Doucette, has raised more than $65 million for childhood cancer research. Its support for the children’s hospital, medical college, and UW Carbone Cancer Center has helped to forge a highly collaborative relationship between researchers in Milwaukee and Madison.

The Bucks also make an annual visit to the children’s hospital, which sparked the hair-painting tradition. A few years ago, after the team had a stretch of disappointing seasons, Margolis offered an enticement: make the playoffs, and I’ll have a patient paint my hair. Last season, when the Bucks won a league-high 60 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals, they hosted eight playoff games, resulting in a record number of painting sessions.

For Margolis, it’s all part of the job: let kids be kids. But his most rewarding moments come much later, when they become adults.

“The ripple effect of saving one child is incredible,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone to more than my fair share of funerals. But to see kids growing up and having weddings, to see kids graduating … it doesn’t get better than that.”

Preston Schmitt ’14 is a staff writer for On Wisconsin.

Published in the Fall 2019 issue


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