Love Potion ’65: A gallbladder, a blackout and a blizzard

Paul Berman MD and Yvonne Axtell met at the newly opened Upstate University. Pictured on their wedding day, June 1966

Paul Berman, MD, and Yvonne Axtell met at the newly opened Upstate University Hospital. Their wedding day, 1966.

The hospital’s 50th anniversary — and this cold, snowy winter — inspired Paul Berman, MD, class of ’63, to share his strongest memory of the newly built Upstate University Hospital: The night the lights went out and he met his future wife, Yvonne Axtell.

At 5:16 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1965, the power went out at Upstate University Hospital, and across 8,000 square miles of the Northeastern United States and Ontario, Canada. It lasted for 13 hours and affected 30 million people, including the patients and staff at Upstate.

At the moment the lights went out,  Paul — a second-year medical resident — was observing a gallbladder surgery in the operating room  and Yvonne — a senior nursing student — was handing out dinner trays on the sixth floor of the new hospital at 750 East Adams Street in Syracuse.

Paul Berman MD, class of 1963

Paul Berman MD, class of 1963

Once the lead surgeon realized the sudden pitch-black in the OR was no prank, Paul Berman was sent in search of light. He ran around the  darkened hospital and finally found a source —a single lantern on the sixth floor medical unit.

Paul grabbed the lantern to take it back to the operating room, but was stopped by Yvonne, who was in charge of the medical unit that night, for the first time in her career.

Yvonne had patients to take care of and no intention of giving up her only light. But Paul implored, “We’re in the middle of surgery!”

He won the debate and the lantern was used to finish the gall-bladder surgery. Yvonne laughingly admits, “I forgave Paul, eventually.”

Fortunately, the windows in the hospital rooms were large, the moon was full and the sky was clear, so Yvonne used moonlight to help see her patients that night.

Gary Kittell, assistant vice president for Upstate’s physical plant services, remembers the 1965 black out and welcomes the technological advances that make such an event less likely now. “Today, New York state’s electrical grid is better automated. Hospital generators come on automatically and support patient care equipment, the fire alarms, ventilation, and so on. There was a similar regional outage in 2004 and, because our grid is highly automated,  Syracuse didn’t lose power.”

Less than three months after relinquishing her lantern to the operating room, Yvonne had another opportunity to save the day at Upstate. The infamous “Blizzard of ’66” began on Jan. 29, and, as she remembers, “The storm brought the city to a halt. People were stuck for days.”

Yvonne lived nearby, on the campus of Syracuse University, and trudged through many feet of snow to work at the hospital throughout the blizzard.

Did Paul admire Yvonne for her work ethic and grace under pressure? Did Yvonne admire Paul for his resourcefulness and pluck? It certainly seems so, since the two married just  seven months after they met during the November black out and wrestled over the lantern.

After marriage, the Bermans moved to Missouri, then Utah, eventually settling in Massachusetts in 1969. They’ve raised two children, and are looking forward to celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary in June.

Dr. and Mrs. Berman and granddaughter, Zanna, in 2013.

Dr. and Mrs. Berman and granddaughter, Zanna.

Paul retired from his primary care practice in 2007, but continues to volunteer as a physician at the “Survivor Center,” a clinic that provides health care free of charge to  those in need, especially immigrants and the homeless.

What’s Dr. Paul Berman’s advice to today’s medical students?

“Go into primary care, please,” he says. “It doesn’t pay as much as some specialties, but we’re needed, and the work is very rewarding.”

About susankeeter

Occasional contributor Upstate’s Susan Keeter has written about and painted Upstate’s Dr. Sarah Loguen, one of the first African American women physicians. Keeter created the horse sculpture in front of the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital and illustrated a children’s book on autism, “Waiting for Benjamin.” She’s written for Physician Practice, Upstate Alumni Journal, Cancer Care and Upstate Health magazines. Reach her by email at or by phone at 315-464-4834.
This entry was posted in alumni, community, education, emergency medicine/trauma, entertainment, family medicine, health care, history, medical student, nursing, volunteers. Bookmark the permalink.