Abraham Bergman, doctor who sought answers about SIDS, dies at 91

Abraham Bergman, doctor who sought answers about SIDS, dies at 91

Dr. Abraham B. Bergman, a pediatrician who was instrumental in passing federal law to combat cot death, a once misunderstood loss that caused not only parental grief but also guilt and blame, and which has left its mark on other enduring public health laws. , died on November 10 in Seattle. He was 91 years old.

The cause of his death, on a family member’s boat, was amyloid heart disease, his son Ben Bergman said.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Dr. Bergman was president of the National Foundation for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a grassroots group that supported parents who had lost children to what was once commonly called death in the cradle. Although SIDS, as the syndrome came to be known, was the leading cause of death in infants under one year old, its cause was unknown. Parents often blame each other, marriages break up and, in some cases, authorities investigate child abuse.

“What we are doing to these parents is a crime,” Dr. Bergman told the New York Times in 1972. “The police investigate, there is a coroner’s inquest, and often the family doctor abandons the parents. »

Dr. Bergman’s group sought to destigmatize SIDS, support grieving parents, and raise money for research. His efforts led to the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Act of 1974, which allocated millions of dollars for research.

Dr. Bergman, who called his decades-long advocacy for improving children’s health “political medicine,” has been a passionate witness at hearings on Capitol Hill on a variety of issues. He recounted heartbreaking anecdotes and chastised lawmakers for their inaction. But he also worked behind the scenes as a de facto lobbyist to advance bills. With ties to two influential U.S. Senators from Washington State, Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. Jackson, he enjoyed exceptional success as a private citizen who influenced legislation.

“Magnuson really trusted Abe, who had his listening ear and motivated him to do a lot of things,” said Eric Redman, a former legislative aide to Mr. Magnuson.

In 1967, Dr. Bergman shook Mr. Magnuson by taking him to the burn unit of a Seattle children’s hospital and showing him young patients who had been seriously injured when their clothes caught fire. Before a Senate subcommittee led by Mr. Magnuson, Dr. Bergman held up a flannel nightgown of the kind a 2-year-old girl was wearing when it caught fire from a radiator, burning her on more than 85% of his body. “You senators can save many more lives than doctors,” he said. In response, Congress toughened and expanded the Flammable Fabrics Act to require more flame-resistant clothing.

In 1970, Dr. Bergman proposed to Mr. Magnuson the idea of ​​the National Health Service Corps, a federal program to pay health care providers’ student debt in exchange for serving as a doctor in poor communities. Dr. Bergman recruited medical students to lobby key members of Congress in their home districts. He personally traveled to West Virginia to lobby Rep. Harley Orrin Staggers, whose district was one of the neediest in the country. President Richard M. Nixon signed the National Health Service Corps Act in December 1970, just ten months after Dr. Bergman proposed it.

Working with Mr. Jackson’s office, Dr. Bergman also helped write the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976, which expanded funding for care for Native Americans, and lobbied for its passage at the Capitol.

“Jackson actually added Abe to his team for the legislative effort,” Mr. Redman recalled.

Abraham Baer Bergman, known as Abe, was born in Seattle on May 11, 1932, to Fred and Minnie (Hurwitz) Bergman. His father owned a luggage business and his mother was a housewife.

He graduated from Reed College in 1954 and received his medical degree from Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland in 1958. He was a resident in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital from London, where he lived for a time. time.

He began his career at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where he was director of outpatient services for 19 years, then moved to Harborview Medical Center, where he served as chief of pediatrics from 1983 to 2005. He continued to be a faculty at the University of Washington School of Medicine until 2016.

Dr. Bergman’s marriages to Judy Maslin, Ann (Bigelow) Bergman, and Suzanne Fiala ended in divorce.

In addition to his son Ben, Dr. Bergman is survived by seven other children: Anna and Matthew Bergman, Sarah Bergman Lewis, Becca Bull and Pavel, Eugeny and Yulia Fiala, who were adopted from orphanages in Russia. He is also survived by six grandchildren.

When Dr. Bergman began his research into infant death, experts had largely discounted its many suspected causes, including suffocation in sheets, cow’s milk allergy, and lead poisoning. One theory proposed by Dr. Bergman was that infants suffered from a vocal cord spasm that obstructed the airway during sleep.

At a research conference in Seattle in 1969, the term sudden infant death syndrome was first officially proposed as a diagnosis.

In 1973, Dr. Bergman testified before Congress, armed with a report on how law enforcement, coroners, and parents in 158 communities responded when a child died suddenly in a crib. There were discrepancies in how health authorities treated parents of different races; only half as many black parents as white parents were told their baby had died of SIDS. An Alabama coroner, cited in the report, attributed one SIDS death to suffocation because “black people don’t know how to properly care for their children.”

During the hearing, he lambasted lawmakers for inaction: “Maybe it’s the heat or maybe it’s the smog. Government officials here in Washington are always busy, very busy, busy with big problems. »

The Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Act was passed shortly thereafter.

Today, the cause of SIDS remains a medical mystery, but the incidence of deaths has declined sharply since 1990. The reason generally cited This involves increased public awareness of risk factors. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents put their babies to sleep on their backs during their first year and that mothers breastfeed their infants, which has been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS.

Jerry Grinstein, a former Senate aide who later became chief executive of Delta Air Lines, recalled in an email that Dr. Bergman first contacted Commerce Committee staffers about SIDS in the late 1990s. 1960, but it took a few years to develop legislation and public support.

Committee members and staff “did the job,” Mr. Grinstein wrote. “But it was Abe’s inspiration and perseverance that used legislation supported by compelling stories from fellow professionals, as well as hurting parents.”

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Eric D. Eilerman

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