By Kathy Day
Dr. Donald Bernstein’s new boss at Sotera Wireless describes the Rancho Santa Fe man as a “mathematician trapped in an anesthesiologist’s body.”
It’s a statement Bernstein, a physician recently retired from practice after 39 years – 36 of them at Palomar Medical Center — likely wouldn’t dispute.
“I enjoy the science of medicine … and was a very good anesthesiologist,” he said, relaxing at his home on a recent Sunday morning. “But my real love is in discovering and finding new ways to monitor (blood flow).”
Good thing for both of them that he’s not trapped in that body any more. Instead, he gets to use his talents in math and physics as senior scientist with Sotera Wireless, a company developing rapid response monitoring devices.
“It didn’t take one nanosecond to leave medicine when they offered me a full-time job,” he said, professing that he’s always been particularly skilled in math and physics.
While Sotera’s first device – now with the FDA for approval — is one that would track a person’s vital signs continuously with a sensor worn on the body, it is Bernstein’s expertise and the patent he has licensed to the company that are being applied to another device focusing on blood flow, said Matt Banet, president and chief scientific officer of the Sorrento Mesa company.
Bernstein – whose retirement will be marked at an event hosted by his former employer Anesthesia Consultants of California Medical Group on March 3 at the Marriott Del Mar – is an acknowledged expert in the field of bioimpedence cardiology – using non-invasive methods to approximate pulsations from the aorta and translate it through equations to how much blood flows from the heart with each beat.
Banet calls the field “the holy grail of medical monitoring,” noting that Bernstein’s passion for it is like nothing he’s seen before.
“He has a really active brain … He’s like a first-year graduate student in how he approaches his work. You don’t see that very often.”
That brain is why Sotera brought Bernstein on board and is using his discoveries to develop a portable system for medics to use on the battlefield that is being funded, in part, by a grant from the military.
If a patient is bleeding internally, there are no existing ways to monitor it and you can’t see it, Banet explained. “The body is good at keeping your heart rate at normal levels even if it is dying inside.”
If you could measure that internal blood flow, he added, “you could almost immediately increase survivability.”
Bernstein’s lengthy resume includes more than two pages listing his accomplishments, patents and publications. That will be expanded by one more article in the coming weeks when a European scientific journal publishes his latest analysis of his work. He’s on the editorial boards for the journals Obesity Surgery and Critical Care Medicine, and is section editor for the journal of Electrical Bioimpedance.
He’s made previous forays into the corporate world before at BoMed in Orange County and as director of medical science and services at San Diego-based CardioDynamics.
But now 68, he said, “I hope I live long enough to see the fruits of my work take root.”
He attended Franklin and Marshall College, but didn’t earn a degree because he was accepted to George Washington University School of Medicine before serving on active duty as a Navy lieutenant that included a WESTPAC deployment from 1969-70 and a year at the Oakland Naval Hospital.
Although he had originally thought about being a cardiologist, after the war he “was in the frame of mind that I didn’t care about anything,” he said, adding that now he has “all but forgotten about Vietnam.”
That was until one night, sitting with friends in an apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay, the topic of what they wanted to do with their medical careers was up for discussion. One said he was going to be an orthopedic surgeon; another would pursue public health and was heading for the Centers for Disease Control.
“They asked me and I didn’t know,” Bernstein said, adding that his pals suggested pediatrics or pathology or radiology. “But I can’t see in 3D so I knew that was out. “
“Hey, why not anesthesiology,” one friend said. “It has good hours, lots of money and no office.”
He took the suggestion and headed for Stanford University School of Medicine for a residency. While there, he said, he saw some of the first heart transplants and witnessed “the birth of the cardiopulmonary bypass.”
All the while, though, his physics and math brain was focusing on science, leading him to his new occupation.
His wife Linda Lederer-Bernstein, a Prudential California Realty agent, says her husband is a “humble, giving man” and “the most positive person I’ve ever met.”
He calls her “the greatest thing to ever happen to me in life. She has made my life complete.”
Bernstein is also grateful for his recovery from extensive injuries sustained when his car was hit by a drunk driver as he was heading west on Del Dios Highway after his daily swim at the Iceoplex in Escondido.
His car rolled off the highway and landed upside down on its roof near the dam, leaving him with a concussion, as well as severe cuts on both wrists from putting his hands through the skylight to try and keep the roof from collapsing. For several months he had expressive aphasia – he knew what he wanted to say but the words wouldn’t come out. He later reached a settlement with the man who caused the accident.
Long past those days, Bernstein and his wife, Linda, occasionally like to get away to Hawaii but, Bernstein said, for the most part he’s “lost his wanderlust … I can read National Geographic or watch the Discovery Channel.” Even so, he added, he’d like to see Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.
Mostly, he said, “I live inside my work … I’m so satisfied, I sleep better than ever.”
And Linda, he added, makes that possible. “She gave me the ability to let my mind soar like a hawk.”