ROSH HASHANAH EDITION 5782 L’CHAIM® MAGAZINE
Dr. Wendy Berenbaum, one of the oldest and longest practicing female OB-GYNs in Denver, first envisioned a future in medicine — and specializing in women’s health — around the third or fourth grade.
“I grew up near BMH and went to Fallis Elementary School, which was across the street,” says Berenbaum, 63, a gynecologist in private practice at Mile High OB-GYN/Women’s Health Group at Rose Medical Center for 32 years.
“My classmate’s mother was Dr. Louise Walker, one of the earliest gynecologists in Denver, and she came to talk to our class.”
Walker spoke to the group about performing surgery and delivering babies, which stunned and excited Berenbaum. “I had a male doctor,” she says, “but I thought, ‘Wow, it’s so cool that female doctors are doing this too.’”
That singular encounter “spurred my interest in medicine — so I guess you could say that Louise Walker really did it for me.”
Over the years, Berenbaum’s pull toward gynecology intensified, not least because it epitomized her belief in female empowerment, such as freedom of choice.
“I always had OB-GYN in my mind,” she says, “but I kept trying not to like it because the hours were so icky . . . Dermatology would be so much easier!” Yet she kept circling back to gynecology.
Her OB-GYN class at CU’s medical school had 50% male and 50% female students, a remarkably even split for that time. Today, women comprise between 90% and 95% of American gynecologists.
Berenbaum enthuses about the vastness and diversity of her chosen field. “We deliver babies. We do surgery. We deal with miscarriages. We’re primary care docs. We do a spectrum of things in one day.
“I might be in the ER for a miscarriage, or go to the OR for an ectopic pregnancy. Then I’ll deliver a baby. Then I’m in the office seeing a patient who’s been trying to conceive. We see the very young and the very old.
“Most of our patients don’t die,” she adds, “and this is very positive. I think that’s why gynecology is such a popular specialty, and why I like it. You insert yourself into these heart pounding moments, but things usually end well.”
Berenbaum, who has delivered thousands of babies who greeted the world with all fingers and toes intact, retired Aug. 6. “It was time,” she says.
Take a look back, and sneak peak forward, with Dr. Wendy Berenbaum.
She was a medical student on rotation at Rose Medical Center when she helped deliver her first baby. The physician in charge was Dr. Stuart Gottesfeld, a legend in his own time.
“Stuart was so much fun,” she laughs as visions of the late doctor dance in her head. “He used to make funny voices in this cute little baby voice, pretending to be the baby.”
Assisting with the birth “was the most joyous experience, and I knew this was for me. Even after doing this for 25, 28 years, it’s amazing that something so complicated comes out so well.
“There’s such joy and mysticism in it.”
A few months ago, Berenbaum brought up the mystical component at a Torah study session at Temple Emanuel.
“There’s so much blood and gush” during birth and “so many things can go wrong, yet most of the time they don’t,” she says. “It’s like there’s this pivot when something bad can happen or else it’s really wonderful.
“You’re on the precipice of life or death. The mom is bleeding after the birth. Most of the time it stops. When the baby comes out and it’s pink and has all its parts and the parents are overjoyed . . . I don’t know if ‘mystical’ is the right word.
“But it was amazing and never got old.”
While Berenbaum never lost a woman or baby in childbirth, she’s endured the worst imaginable situations. “Probably the scariest thing is when a woman hemorrhages in the middle of the night or even during the day,” she says. “It’s very tense, but we’re trained for this, similar to a pilot or fireman.
“There are specific things we do to prevent a hysterectomy after birth or,
G-d forbid, death, that go from A to B to C to D. When we get to E, F and G, it’s really scary. That’s when we push the husband out of the room and rush his wife to the OR.”
Berenbaum, whose first office was across from Hillel Academy and who guided countless rebbetzins through labor, suspects that women are more anxious about childbirth in 2021.
“I think so,” she nods. “A hundred years ago, parents had eight kids and at least two or three of them died in infancy. There was no expectation of perfection. Today, women are going to have their 2.4 perfect children and send them to Stanford. Parents don’t want to take any risks during labor.
“Many times, even if there was a minor problem but I was sure the baby could be delivered manually, parents would say, ‘No, just take the baby out. Do a C-section.’ They are so nervous.”
High anxiety might be due to women delaying pregnancy until later in life. Getting pregnant can be a struggle. It might take two years or longer to conceive. Others invest enormous time and money in IVF.
The stakes, so to speak, are very high. “Parents just want the delivery to be the best it can be.”
Berenbaum was tasked with breaking bad news to patients, such as a diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer. How did she frame those frightening words?
“Through years of training, we learned to put on our doctors’ hat and not get emotional,” she says. “We’re also trained to be empathic, but I would be no use to a woman if I was crying with her.”
There was a time when she called a patient every six weeks with a breast cancer diagnosis. “It’s very hard. You feel for them. I’m empathetic, yet clinical: ‘here’s what we’re going to do, and you’re going to be great.’”
Berenbaum bases her reassurance on medical breakthroughs and advancements.
“Breast cancer is very common, especially in Jewish women. But most of them do well. A hundred years ago, even a few decades ago, it was a fatal disease. Today, most women will survive breast cancer.”
She’s a vocal advocate for BRCA mutation testing for Jewish women, who have a considerably higher risk of developing reproductive cancers if they are BRCA-positive.
“I’ve seen BRCA a lot because I have a very large Jewish patient population in Glendale and the Denver Tech Center,” says Berenbaum, who rotates past and present tenses. “I’m in the hood.”
The risk of getting ovarian cancer, compared to breast cancer, is statistically rare. One in seven to eight women will get breast cancer, while one in 70 will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in their lifetime.
BRCA, as in breast cancer, dramatically increases the risk of ovarian cancer in Jewish women.
Although some women choose to delay or skip their mammograms and annual screenings, they’ll rush to see their gynecologists if a relative or friend has ovarian cancer. It’s not contagious, but can be deadly.
“I’m glad that the fear of getting ovarian cancer brings in patients to check their own health,” Berenbaum says. “It’s a frightening disease that is difficult to detect early. The survival rate has barely increased in the last 50 years.
“That is why testing for the BRCA mutation is vital. If someone is BRCA- positive, we will want to remove their ovaries by the time they’re done having children, around age 40.”
Berenbaum, who treated 10 to 12 patients each morning prior to retirement, interacted with several Russian Jewish women in her office — delightfully animated affairs she compares to going to Starbucks or speed dating.
“Several women were lonely. I was their friend, and they were so sweet. I heard all their secrets; we spoke Yiddish. They even brought me boxes of chocolates.
“I’m really going to miss them.”
Wendy Berenbaum was born and raised in Philadelphia until she was two. That’s when the family moved to Denver because her mother’s brothers Sid and Saul Shafner lived here.
Her father owned the Zanza Bar, a popular Western nightclub on Colfax for several years. The Clint Eastwood film “Every Which Way But Loose” was filmed at the Zanza Bar when Berenbaum was in high school.
She met Jim Berenbaum, whom she married in 1984, when they were both involved in NFTY. Jim, son of Joe and Penny Berenbaum, was a year older and regional NFTY vice president. Wendy was the regional convention coordinator.
“We kind of knew each other, but we didn’t date,” she says. “Then Jim went east for college and lived in New Jersey and I went to LA for a year. A friend, Marcia Rich, told me Jim was back in Denver. I always joke that I was the only one on his list who was home when he called.”
They married after her third year of medical school. Her first child, Amy, was born during her fourth year of residency, followed by daughter Katie.
Berenbaum credits the constant support of Jim, who now works remotely as a network engineer for Catholic Health, for her ability to mix a demanding career with a family life. “He was a very involved parent who kept the wheels on the bus so I could do this job.”
Amy became a public health lawyer and Katie just started her third year of internal residency in Portland, Maine. The entire family is in the medical field in one way or another.
“In a way it’s surprising,” Berenbaum says of her daughters’ professional paths. “When they were young, I’d come home with photos of tumors and other unpleasant things. My children were always exposed to this.
“I thought they’d need therapy! But instead they gravitated toward medicine. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Berenbaum offers a candid opinion about why girls veer away from careers in STEM:
“It’s OK for girls to be smart until they reach a certain age,” she says. “Then, suddenly, it’s not cool to be smart. By junior high, girls are supposed to be pretty, period. They abandon science. At least that’s what I read.
“But Jim and I always told our daughters, who went to Graland Country Day School and great colleges, you can be a doctor, an engineer, a surgeon — anything you want.”
For over 15 years, Berenbaum volunteered on a career day program with Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye at Rose Medical Center that introduced Denver Jewish Day School seniors to the realities of a doctor’s life.
Students visited the operating room; were strapped to an EKG by a female anesthesiologist; observed ultrasounds; and listened to her story.
“The kids thought these two hours were just the coolest. I spoke about myself: I’m a regular mom, I drive for school field trips, I deliver babies, I’m a surgeon, I’m a respected member of the community.
“I showed them it was possible. You can be Jewish, a woman, a mother, and still have fun. The kids were fascinated. They said, ‘I want to be a doctor, too.’”
Although Wendy Berenbaum was going to continue working another seven or eight years, several factors convinced her to move up her date of retirement.
“I have a nine-month-old grandchild,” she smiles, “but I already see him a lot. Then a larger group acquired our practice and retirement just seemed right. I surprised myself. But I felt that life is short and I wanted more time.”
Berenbaum cut back on her responsibilities some years ago. That helped. But seeing a dozen tightly-spaced office patients each morning exhausted her.
Retirement is not age-based, she says. It’s an individual call that’s different for everyone.
“I admit that retirement is kind of scary, especially when you’ve been working your whole life. It may be a bit lonely, or too quiet. But I’m excited that I won’t face so much daily responsibility.”
Her gradual shift to part-time responsibilities enabled her to walk the dogs, bike, exercise, play Mah Jongg — simple pleasures her full-time schedule denied.
COVID-19, which shuttered the US in lockdown mode in March, 2020, initially caused Berenbaum to contemplate moving up her retirement. “For the most part, people worked remotely,” she says. “We’ve been treating patients in the office this whole time. We wore N95 masks and followed strict precautions, but it was still stressful.
“I’m not retiring because of COVID,” Berenbaum stresses, “but it definitely played a piece. It’s been a very long year-and-a-half.”
She recalls that her frenetic pace and unpredictable hours used to drive her mother-in-law crazy. “Penny, the most genteel, lovely Southern woman I’d ever met, was always asking me, ‘Why are you so busy all the time? Let’s go to Green Gables!’
“Now I want to be bored,” Berenbaum says of this new luxury. “I’m looking forward it. Actually, I have many interests — but I don’t have to do all 20 of them.”
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