In 1949, Jerome Berman opened a pediatric practice in the far-flung outpost of Sandy Springs, mostly because he couldn’t afford to rent space in Atlanta. He stayed for 33 years and eventually became a preeminent diagnostician of rare children’s diseases.
He’d serve as chairman of pediatrics at Northside Hospital while running sick and well-baby clinics at various Fulton County health centers. He may also have been one of the last metro area doctors to make home visits, complete with diminutive black bag, taking calls in the middle of the night from both Northside and private patients.
But in 1982 at age 58 his career — indeed, his calling — was extinguished practically overnight.
“He went to work on a Friday,” said his daughter Karen Berman, “and would never go back. He had cataract surgery on Saturday—surgery performed by a friend of his. He came out of it with a with a hemorrhage and a detached retina, and basically never would see again.”
Yet for the last 3½ decades of his life Berman performed a rather astonishing second act. Or as his longtime friend Dr. Armand Hendee said recently, “Jerry probably did more good as a blind man than he did as an active pediatrician.”
Dr. Jerome Berman, 93, died May 31, 2018, from complications following a stroke. A graveside service was held June 3.
He was born in Atlanta on November 27, 1924, and grew up, his daughter said, “lower middle class” on Virginia Avenue. He graduated from Boys High in 1942, five years before that school’s closing (he’d planned on attending the final Boys High reunion last April, but was too sick).
He and Hendee met in June 1943, when both were in the enlisted reserve corps at Fort McPherson.
“Both of us had a letter of acceptance to Emory Medical School,” Hendee explained. “In the beginning the reserve was going to pay for our medical education. But all that changed when the country began building up the Army. They gave us a choice. We could be discharged from the Army and go to med school at our own expense. Or we could go into basic training and after that probably into combat.
“That might seem like a no-brainer,” he added. “But neither of our families had any means. Meantime our friends were going off and fighting and some getting killed. So the whole thing was, if we chose med school we better earn it. It was a lot of pressure for two 19-year-olds, and that decision bonded us for life.”
Both worked multiple jobs paying their way through Emory Medical, and both graduated in 1948. Settling into their busy careers — Hendee as an obstetrician and gynecologist at Emory — they gradually lost touch.
In June 1951, Berman married Betty Green, a piano teacher who would later go to law school shortly before her husband became blind. Eventually they would have three daughters, and she would practice family law near Lenox Square, with Dr. Berman becoming her paralegal.
After losing his sight Berman spent a year taking classes at Atlanta’s Center for the Visually Impaired, learning to use a cane to negotiate streets, stairs and MARTA. Karen said, “He became the most independent blind person ever,” while also learning to poke fun at himself.
A virtuoso gardener, Berman loved telling the story about wandering into a bank near his Atlanta home — a garden nursery was next door several feet away — and asking the teller for bag of fertilizer.
In 1985 Berman and Anne McComiskey, who’d recently moved from San Diego, founded the Babies Early Growth Intervention Network (BEGIN), a teaching and support program for visually impaired preschoolers.
“We were both looking for a program to start,” said McComiskey, who remained BEGIN’s director until her 2013 retirement. “Jerry became our medical consultant, but he was really the impetus behind the program’s beginning. We started out with 40 kids, and by the time I retired we had five teachers, a number of specialists and were serving hundreds of children.
“Though he was no longer practicing, his blindness didn’t take away his knowledge and guidance. He’d walk into a room with his warmth and sense of humor and people would want to talk. People gained hope when they saw this funny, handsome doctor.”
Berman stayed remarkably busy. He gave around 700 lectures for the United Way. He reconnected with his medical school buddy, Hendee, and they talked, mostly by phone, several times a week for the last 15 years. Hendee constantly marveled at his friend’s stamina and ebullient disposition even as he lost his wife Betty (in Jan. 2004), then he battled cancer, a stroke, and a botched ear surgery that left him unable to swallow for many days.
In 2012 Hendee nominated him for the Distinguished Medical Achievement Award given by Emory’s School of Medicine’s Atlanta Medical Alumni, which Berman ultimately won. Years earlier in 1989, Berman had earned his masters in public health from Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.
When he applied at Rollins, incidentally, a surprised dean pointed out Berman would be the first blind person to complete the program.
“That’s okay, dean,” Berman said. “This is the first time I’ve been blind.”
“You see, that’s just the way he was,” Hendee said. “He was like that about every time we talked on the phone. He could thread a sense of humor into anything, even when sitting in there in the darkness by himself.”
Berman is survived by his daughters Karen Berman of Milledgeville, Ellen Berman of Atlanta and Sally Berman of Glendale, Cal., his son-in-law Paul Accettura of Milledgeville, his sister Hazel Karp and two grandchildren.
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