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.
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.
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.”