Dr. Gary Berger ’88YC, ’85YUHS will remember his five days in Port-au-Prince forever. Berger normally spends his days performing cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgery procedures in his Manhattan practice, but during the last week in February, he worked feverishly to try to save the limbs of countless earthquake-ravaged victims in Haiti.
Berger’s journey to the aftermath of the devastating earthquake was set in motion by a phone call from Dr. Donald Roland, a fellow plastic surgeon who asked to borrow medical supplies from Berger’s operating room to take to the Dominican Republic on his own mission to treat survivors. One week later, Roland called again saying that what the victims really needed was reconstructive surgery. ”He said to me, ‘this is why we went to medical school,’ and, cliché as it sounded, that really hit home,” Berger stated.
Armed with medical supplies donated from several sources including Berger’s synagogue, the Young Israel of New Rochelle, he boarded a plane heading to Santo Domingo where he met Dr. Jacob Freiman ’95YC, Berger’s cousin and also a plastic surgeon from Palm Beach, FL. They rented a car and drove across the country to Good Samaritan Hospital in Jimani, near the Haitian border, but their efforts were thwarted by Dominican authorities who had stopped allowing Haitians seeking medical aid to enter the country. The hospital was being shut down, resulting in a significant decrease in the number of patients from 500 to fewer than 50. Berger was told that patients were getting better, so healthcare needs weren’t as dire as they had been when the earthquake first hit.
The plastic surgeons then trekked on barely drivable roads to the epicenter of the devastation – Port-au-Prince – or more specifically, the University Hospital of Haiti, around the corner from the devastated Presidential Palace.
”There were people who had been cut out of buildings with machetes because a limb was stuck under rubble but their bodies were fine.”
They arrived to appalling conditions. Flies swarmed around the unsterile operating room and electricity was far from consistent. But with the majority of the hospital buildings either severely damaged or completely destroyed, most of the medical care was done in large, sweltering tents filled with survivors–usually missing an arm, a leg or both–dressed in shredded, dust-covered clothing with their heads wrapped in bandages sleeping on their own dirty sheets. ”You’d hear giggling children and turn around to find them playing happily but they’d have bandages with no arms,” Berger recounted. ”There were people who had been cut out of buildings with machetes because a limb was stuck under rubble but their bodies were fine. Somebody needed to actually close up those wounds and create a formalized stump.”
Berger performed amputations and skin grafts and provided wound care to so many patients that he couldn’t keep track. ”For any person, it’s very hard to ignore devastation like this,” he said. ”Words can’t describe the experience. For an Orthodox Jew, this really epitomizes Tikkun Olam.”
As a physician and surgeon, Berger’s life truly encompasses both Torah and Madda. He is an assistant clinical professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and credits the teachings of his Rebbeim at YU, and his professors of speech and drama, Rebecca Stearns and Dr. Anthony Beukas, for the communications skills he has used executing the doctor-patient relationship over the last 22 years. He also claims his participation in YC’s Dramatics Society led him to pursue a field of medicine that is firmly rooted in creative artistry on a day-to-day basis.
”Words can’t describe the experience. For an Orthodox Jew, this really epitomizes Tikkun Olam.”
Berger is currently the medical director of Park 71 Plastic Surgery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and has lectured on ”Medicine and Halacha” on both YU undergraduate campuses. He and and his wife, Rachel (Mandel) ’91C, ’88S, reside in New Rochelle, NY, with their four children and Berger says the most significant, life-changing event during his time at YU was meeting his future wife on a skiing day trip organized jointly by the Stern and YC sophomore classes. He and Rachel feel strongly that it is important for the University to continue to encourage and foster joint undergraduate social events.
Berger comes from a long lineage of YU graduates. His father, uncles and brothers are graduates of both Yeshiva University High School for Boys (YUHSB) and Yeshiva College (YC); his grandfather is a YUHSB graduate; his mother and sister are alumnae of the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central); and his wife, Rachel is a Stern and a Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law graduate. In fact, during YU’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1986, Berger’s family was one of four honored by then Chancellor Dr. Norman Lamm for having the most YU graduates in one extended family.