Emergency Room Juggler
Take three of these, and see me in the morning.
by Orrel Lanter
By 11 p.m. the emergency room at Brookside, a hospital in one of San Francisco's more violent areas, had seen its share of the Saturday night crazies. A stabbing, two shootings and a cardiac arrest. But for a few brief moments there was a lull in the action.
Dr. Barry Berkowitz, the wiry, curly-haired doctor in charge, glanced at a sobbing child. She had a gash on her leg that was going to require stitches. "Watch this," he whispered to her conspiratorially. Grabbing three rolls of gauze, he juggled them over his head and behind his back. The little girl giggled, astonished to see the doctor playing. Her anxious parents relaxed noticeably. "Now, let's have a look at that cut," Berkowitz suggested. The child complied. A juggler was no one to be afraid of.
Berkowitz, 41, began juggling in 1978 when he picked up the rudiments of his craft on vacation on a beach in Maui. After watching an acquaintance juggle tennis balls, he spent the better part of the day trying to juggle rocks. When he returned home to Berkeley, he learned that Ho Chi Minh Park, as it was known in those days, was a meeting place for jugglers on Saturdays. He started practicing with them. As his skills increased, he was reluctant to put it aside. His juggling followed him into the emergency room.
Because of his predilection, Berkowitz was regarded as a bit of a character by many of his medical colleagues, although his medical abilities were never in question. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and cum laude from Queen's College, N.Y., and earned his medical degree from State University of New York. A year of internship at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego followed, and then a year overseas as battalion surgeon with the Third Marine Division off the coast of Viet Nam.
He wound up in the Bay Area after being stationed for a final year at the Naval Dispensary on Treasure Island. It was during this time that he developed a passion for the excitement and challenge of emergency medicine. Upon discharge from the military he began an 11-year career as an emergency room physician.
He didn't keep his juggling ability a secret. So it wasn't long before nurses were approaching him with, "Doc, the patient in room six could sure use a juggle." Performances in the convalescent wards and hospital shows followed. He found it a welcome relief from the pressures of the emergency room.
"I developed an 'Incredible Medical Juggle' using a stethoscope, hypodermic syringe and bed pan," he chuckled. Patients started asking for Dr. Juggles. He appeared on KQED-TV's "Salute to Juggling" program and on "Real People" and "Good Morning America." Night club bookings followed.
"It was a lot more fun than emergency rooms," he mused. "I enjoy making people laugh. Hey, I spent summers in the Catskills earning money for medical school. I loved the 'schtick' I saw on stage there. The idea of becoming a comedian crossed my mind many times back then. My concerned folks took me aside and told me, 'Barry, we're not pushing you to become a doctor... a lawyer or a dentist would also be O.K.'"
In 1983 at the IJA convention in Purchase, N.Y., he met Dr. Steve Allen Jr., son of entertainers Jayne Meadows and Steve Allen. They discussed their interests in the combination of medicine and juggling and an idea germinated. Berkowitz recalled, "I was already aware of the inherent stress-reducing benefits of juggling, not only for the patients, but for myself as well. Physically, it improves eye-hand coordination. The array of patterns stimulates the mind and the constant movement exercises the entire body. I conceptualized the idea of teaching juggling seminars at medical conventions as a method of stress reduction for medical personnel and patients.
"Juggling is a form of play therapy. It literally teaches you to let go of unimportant things. Dr. Carl Simonton of Ft. Worth, Texas, works with cancer patients. One of the ways he teaches them to relax is to have them juggle marshmallows."
So intrigued was he that in 1984 Dr. Barry Berkowitz took a "leave of option" from the front lines of emergency medicine to pursue, in true California fashion, a new career as Dr. Juggles. At the same time, to insure himself a secure income while developing his seminars, he invested as a partner in a gourmet coffee roastery and cafe called Uncommon Grounds.
The roastery is located in the changing industrial area that is the heart of Berkeley's "New Bohemia." It soon became a gathering place for an eclectic hodge-podge of scientists from the research labs, artists from numerous co-ops, writers, musicians and actors. In one room an old piano graced a wall adjacent to a makeshift stage area. Anyone was welcome to perform. Berkowitz did. Often.
"I found the high ceilings and amiable crowds terrific for testing out new routines," he said. "One time I added a rubber chicken with a red cape around its neck to my medical juggle. 'Hey, doc!' someone called from the crowd, 'what's with the chicken?' I replied, 'It's a cape-on!' Then I juggled it over my head, 'and this is poultry in motion!' I've kept it in the act. It's always good for a groan!"
Things were going remarkably well. "Stress is the high-priority problem of the '80s. My seminars were being accepted enthusiastically and I was getting inquiries from non-medical corporations interested in teaching it to management and employees. Meanwhile the coffee business was booming also. In July 1986 I was made president of the company and had to immerse myself in the logistics of a growing business. I was enjoying the challenge of juggling two careers."
Then in the early morning hours of Sept. 5, 1986, his 41st birthday, he was rushed to the emergency room of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. "I had a congenital brain aneurysm and it was about to blow. Talk about emergencies!" he grimaced. "Two former colleagues operated. They tell me I came out of surgery making juggling patterns with my hands. When they asked me where I was, I told them Sumatra. It's one of the countries where we purchase coffee.
"Recovery was tedious and exhausting. I wasn't used to being a patient. One morning my girlfriend grabbed three balls off the kitchen counter and threw them at me. 'It's about time you got back into this,' she said. I juggled, and was back to work three weeks later."
Asked if he had any regrets about giving up his traditional medical practice, Berkowitz smiled contentedly. "As a doctor and a juggler I'm always facing battles against inevitable forces... death and gravity. But now if I make a mistake you can boo me, but you can't sue me," he quipped. "You know, if this is a mid-life crisis, well... it just doesn't hurt!"