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Abe Bergman has mixed pediatrics, 'political medicine,' to benefit kids for half a century

Abraham (Abe) Bergman, M.D., a respected pediatrician and pediatrics professor in Seattle for more than 50 years, had a second practice over all those years that he refers to as "political medicine," which frequently found him twisting arms of state and national lawmakers for kids-related issues. Now he has a new cause that is painfully close to him: to build new community facilities to house the mentally ill.

Bergman, who retired as chief of pediatrics at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center in 2002, is seeking to have the 2015 Legislature clear the way to include construction of facilities for mentally ill housing in the capital construction budget the lawmakers pass each biennium.

Dr. Abraham (Abe) Bergman 

Bergman, who practiced pediatrics at Children's Hospital for 20 years and Harborview for 30 in addition to teaching at the UW Medical School, thinks the time is right for his proposal for several reasons.

An obvious one is a State Supreme Court ruling last year making the practice of warehousing mentally ill patients in hospital emergency rooms due to a lack of available treatment space illegal.

That ruling dramatically complicated the processes in place in the state mental health system and forces the Legislature to confront the question of how to deal with the longstanding dilemma of the impact budget cuts have had on the availability of mental-health treatment space.

But a decision immediately after the ruling by the Medicare and Medicaid Services to allow Washington State to use Medicaid dollars to pay for services in what are officially called Institutes for Mental Diseases may be another boost to Bergman's campaign. That decision would allow qualified non-profits to provide services in the facilities that he would like to see built with state capital construction bonds.

He candidly admits his interest "has been piqued" by having a 19 year old, one of three children from the Russian Far East that he and his wife adopted in the late '90s and early 2000s, "who has been at the intersection of the criminal justice and mental health systems for the past two years."

"The problem is visible everywhere in society," Bergman said. "People who are psychotic are walking around on the streets. Jails are full of people with mental illness and there is no place, no supportive housing, where these people who are a danger to themselves and others can go."


Bergman points as a possible model to a long-standing program in Maryland that provides for capital grants to non-profits or county or municipal corporations for from $100,000 to $2 million per project to construct buildings to provide services to individuals with development disabilities, mental illness or addiction.

"I feel there's a glimmer of hope now for the Legislature to consider this because, after talking with several legislators, it seems possible partisan swords will be sheathed, partly because there are certain issues, like child welfare, that have always been exempt from partisanship and this may well be one," Bergman said.

"The neat thing about my proposal is that most construction costs can be covered by the sale of bonds (in the capital budget) and funds to operate the programs can come mostly from Medicaid," he added. "So it's not a budget breaker."

Bergman notes that his plan, now being considered by the House budget committee, doesn't necessarily need passage of a bill to implement, but rather could merely be inserted directly into the capital budget itself.

I've been watching Bergman, now 82, practice his "political medicine" for more than 40 years, since we first connected in 1973 after the death of our infant, Sarah, who was a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Bergman and another young physician, Bruce Beckwith, were, for nearly a decade, the first contacts for Seattle-area parents whose infants had died unexpectedly and unexplainedly from what was long referred to as "crib death."

It was on behalf of those lost infants and their grieving parents that Bergman had already successfully guided a national campaign that led to research efforts to explain the sudden deaths and changed thoughtless and heartless medical and law enforcement practices. And their national efforts gave what had merely been "crib death" an actual medical name.

It was about the same time, in the mid-'60s, that Bergman also provided a key assist to Washington's Sen. Warren Magnuson in getting Congress to amend the Flammable Fabrics Act to expand its coverage to include foam and other materials used in children's clothing.

But Bergman's activities on behalf of kids extend way beyond mere political activism. He has been engaged for more than a decade leading efforts to improve healthcare for foster children, a campaign that he says is beginning to bring results.

He's been an outspoken advocate of adoptions by retirees, particularly of special-needs children. He became an advocate of retiree adoptions after he and his wife adopted their three youngsters from the Russian Far East.

And another successful campaign of Bergman's on behalf of children with special needs was creation of the Seattle Children's PlayGarden, which he proudly points to as "the only facility of its kind in the country located in a public park."

Bergman was the founding board chair and a key advocate for the PlayGarden when it became a 501c3 in 2003 and the Seattle Parks Department offered the south end of Coleman Playfield as the site for a public-private development. He calls it "the most gratifying project I have ever been involved with."

The annual luncheon on behalf of the PlayGarden, which is described as "improving the lives of chldren with physical or mental disabilities by providing them with full access to a safe indoor/outdoor recreation space and offering programs that improve their potential," is March 27 at the Four Seasons at 12p. 

Bergman once described the rewards of his half century as a pediatrician as satisfying "the passions of my bleeding heart by practicing 'political medicine' on behalf of underserved kids." It's a passion that hasn't abated in his retirement years.  

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Christmas season is our time to reflect on Baby Sarah Elizabeth and her "gifts"

Newborn Sarah Elizabeth brought our family a special magic that Christmas season of 1973.


Her arrival four days before Christmas carried a particular excitement for 6-year-old Meagan and 4-year-old Michael that even surpassed the thrill of the packages under the tree. They'd sit on the couch and push as close as possible to mom and look on with fascination as Betsy held and fed the baby.


It was Sarah's only Christmas. The daughter who would be celebrating her 40th birthday this weekend died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome exactly two months after her birth.


The passage of time has slowed the frequency of Betsy and my trips to the cemetery to visit her gravesite on her birthday to place a small tree on her "little angel" stone and reflect on what she would be like at that moment, first as a child, then a teenager, then as an adult. But we'll do so this year in honor of this special would-have-been birthday celebration.


Perhaps because our visits to Sarah's grave and reflections about her occur during this season when love, caring and hope are the focus, we long ago came to believe that good came out of the pain of losing her, Sarah's "gifts."


The first good was our involvement, in an effort to bring meaning from her death, with the state SIDS organization. Initially we sought support in our pain, and an understanding of the disease entity that had taken our baby, then eventually giving back by supporting other SIDS parents who needed help coming to grips with their loss.


We learned you take, give back, then move on, as time allows painful memory to be replaced by loving memory.


Betsy and I, after taking support from the SIDS group and learning about SIDS as an incident that occurs without warning and for which parents are not to blame, became part of the support group for other parents. I eventually became president of the state SIDS chapter and spoke to groups of parents around the state.


We made lifelong friends among the healthcare professionals andSIDS parents. The former included Bruce Beckwith who was with Children's Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle and Abe Bergman, then assistant director of pediatrics at UW, who devoted their lives to assisting parents while seeking answers to the why and how of SIDS. The friends included the late State Supeme Court Justice Fred Dore and his wife Mary. Dore, as a state senator, and his wife, a forceful business professional, helped bring about state legislation that helped ensure that parents who had lost a baby were not treated as criminals.


Reflecting on Sarah has caused me to reflect anew on SIDS itself.


Because SIDS was, and remains, a disease entity that strikes infants without warning and with a cause unknown, it has remained fertile ground for what Bergman always referred to as "the theory of the month" that would pop up and get media attention.


As a journalist with UPI then, I was able to touch base with experts and shoot down, with offsetting visibility, the cockeyed theories, each of which would bring renewed pain to parents who, despite logic, often harbored a sense of guilt that they were somehow at fault for their infant's death.


Those recent thoughts about what's up currently with SIDS led me to contact Bergman about any progress with the disease.


"There is some good and some bad," he offered, noting that there is some solid research in neurophysiology and genetics into "specifically what happens to the brain centers controlling breathing and sleep during the body's shift from fetal mode to regular mode between the 2nd and 4th month of life."


But he noted that the research is into learning to understand the mechanism of how it happens, adding "prevention is quite another thing."


Then there's "the bad."

"A reversion to the attitudes held by coroners and medical examiners 40 years ago, which I call 'the revenge of the forensic pathologists,' many of whom always felt that parents were killing their kids," Bergman said.


Bergman, now 80, joined with Beckwith in the 1960s to wage a national campaign that led to research, changed medical and law-enforcement practices and actually gave what was, at best, called "crib death" the medical name Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.


"The disappearance of parent-advocacy groups and the fact there's no longer strong leadership to take the offensive on this has left pathologists not cowed anymore," says Bergman, who still writes in national medical journals to try to call attention to the problem of a professional reluctance to use the SIDS diagnosis.


"Yes, there are fewer actual SIDS cases, but the biggest reason for the 'reduction' by far, is a return to the dreaded words to explain the deaths: suffocation, asphyxiation, strangulation, and most commonly, 'unknown,'" he said.  "There are several counties in Washington State where the term SIDS is never used," he added.


But he emphasized that the King County Medical Examiner's office "has not fallen for that garbage. Under the leadership of Dr Richard Harruff, the Medical Examiner's office demonstrates how scientific rigor and compassion to families can go neatly together."

The most important "gift" that came following Sarah's death was that two years after she died, we had another baby girl, one who might not have been planned if there hadn't been a void for us that needed filling.


Eileen Elizabeth had a special role as a "subsequent child," well-discussed in literature provided to SIDS parents. For the first fewmonths, I would creep into her bedroom to check her as she slept, wanting to be sure that if she too became a SIDS baby, that I would be the one who discovered it.


Eileen has grown to adulthood, now herself the mother of three girls, including Sarah, her first born. She has occupied a special place in the love and affection we have for our children, not as our Sarah's replacement but as her own special person. 

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