Israel Bonds unit embraces doctors
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Israel Bonds unit embraces doctors

Retired ophthalmologist tells of treating poor in Kenya

Most people associate retirement with increased leisure time, golf, and Florida. But for Dr. Robert Bergen, who retired after 32 years as an ophthalmologist, retirement provided the opportunity to study intensively about malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever. He did that in preparation for a four-month stint from December to March as a volunteer physician in the largest slum in Africa, in Nairobi, Kenya. He shared his experiences at a recent Israel Bonds event in Alpine.

“Dr. Bergen took the initiative to find a clinic on the Internet,” said Dr. Deane Penn who ran the event as part of an initiative to establish a Health Professionals Division of Israel Bonds in Bergen County. Penn, who is the Bergen County chairman of Israel Bonds, said that his colleague spent his time in the clinic caring for patients with serious infectious diseases.

Besides his work in Africa, Bergen has been a supporter of many Jewish causes. In recognition of his many good works he is being honored at the Health Professionals Division of New Jersey State of Israel Bonds Dinner next week. “He is one of four honorees, doctors who gave back to the community,” said Penn.

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Dr. Robert Bergen faced new challenges during a four-month stint in Kenya. PHOTO”ˆcourtesy dr. robert bergen

Although Bergen lived in a high-rise building during his stay in Kenya, with plumbing, running water, and decent sanitation, he was only five minutes away from the Kibera slum, where he practiced general medicine. Kibera is the largest and perhaps most destitute slum in Africa, with about a million residents, many living in dwellings built on top of refuse dumps, with no running water or plumbing. Since Bergen had established and run a large New Jersey ophthalmology/retinal practice with five offices and nine doctors, he was able to use his supervisory and medical skills to help the Kenyan clinic improve its services. “I reorganized the clinic,” he said. “They had problems with patient flow, and with stealing.”

He was thankful that he did not contract any of the illnesses treated in the clinic. “I got a lot of shots beforehand,” he said. Although Kenya has experienced some political instability in recent years, Bergen reported that it was not an issue for him during his stay. “I had one bad experience,” he said. “Six guys came running into the clinic with an injured buddy.” Bergen examined the patient, who had no external injuries, and recommended that he be taken to the Kenyatta Hospital for tests and scans that were beyond the clinic’s capability. “They started pushing and shoving me” insisting that their friend be treated, said Bergen. The men finally left, and the stunned doctor watched them speed off in a van, mowing down a pedestrian as they drove away.

Bergen had the opportunity to meet the Israeli ambassador to Kenya, as well as other members of the Jewish community. “The synagogue in Nairobi had mostly Israeli businesspeople,” he said. “Israel has had a strong connection with Kenya since [then Minister of Foreign Affairs] Golda Meir visited and forged an alliance.” The Israeli embassy is not far from the synagogue, which serves about 100 families.

These days he and his wife, Cheryl, spend half the year in their Fort Lee home and the remainder of the year in Florida. Now he can take time for golf and other leisure activities, but still maintains close ties to the Kenya clinic, raising and sending it money and supplies.

Penn has high hopes for the Bergen County Health Professionals Division and is planning activities of interest to physicians and other health-care professionals. A retired gastroenterologist who worked in the field for 35 years, with offices in Fort Lee and Teaneck, he is now a medical stock analyst. In addition to his work for Israel Bonds, he has also visited and raised money for the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, Israel, which was the victim of serious attacks and damage during the Lebanon war. “They’re under a lot of pressure there,” he noted. He ran the Physicians Cabinet in UJA of Northern New Jersey and set up missions and exchanges for that group with Western Galilee Hospital. He is planning to set up similar types of activities for Israel Bonds.

The other three honorees at the June 24 dinner are New Jersey residents Drs. Elliot Rosenstein, a rheumatologist who grew up in Teaneck and lives on a farm in Far Hills, Lois Shulman, an obstetrician/gynecologist from North Brunswick, and Larry Weinstein, a plastic surgeon from Mount Freedom.

The Health Professionals Division of New Jersey State of Israel Bonds Annual Tribute Dinner will be held on Wednesday, June 24, at 6 p.m. in the Crystal Plaza in Livingston. The event, a joint effort between the Bergen and Middlesex divisions, is glatt kosher and includes a buffet reception, the program, and dessert. The guest speaker will be Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Dinner co-chairs include Englewood resident Dr. Ted Tobias, a semi-retired obstetrician/gynecologist who has practiced in Fort Lee and New York City.

Others are Drs. Catherine and Erwin Mermelstein of East Brunswick, Linda and Dr. Lee Rosenbaum of Morristown, Rachel and Dr. Stephen Winters of Morris Plains, and Jill and Moshe Wolberger of Livingston.

Drs. Kenny and Sharon Fried of Demarest and Dr. Bruce Rosen of Tenafly are on the committee

For more information, call Marc Rosen, Israel Bonds representative, at (973) 994-0516 or e-mail Penn at PletkaM@aol.com.

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