Dr. Herbert Berkoff, former chief of Cardiothoracic surgery at the University of California at Davis Medical Center, passed away suddenly at home on June 17, 2019. Dr. Berkoff is survived by his wife of 40 years, Vivienne Roseby, who loved him beyond reason, his children Karen, David, Noah and Sarah and grandchildren Zoey, Liam, Riley and Cooper. Herb Berkoff grew up poor in an industrial and dangerous neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. His father, Benjamin came from Belarus to escape pogroms and persecution. Benjamin’s eight-year-old sister died on the journey. Benjamin married Herb’s mother Rose, and they had three children, Herb was their youngest. He grew up in an apartment over their fish and poultry market, having to manage frightening and difficult chores; handling scaly fish, pecking chickens, and rats who didn't want to share the eggs that he was sent to collect. When he was seven, the family moved to a street named Hurdle, that was like a green canopy of safety for him. When he earned a scholarship to Columbia College, he gave up his dream of being a PE teacher, and set his sights on medical school. Columbia was a hard and lonely existence where he often went hungry because his scholarship didn't provide for much extra, and the family had no money to spare. He looked forward to scrambled eggs at the local drugstore several times a week, just to keep up the protein. After medical school at NYU he ran a MASH unit in Vietnam, collaborating (illicitly) with a team of nuns to provide surgery to the local people in nearby villages. He was tremendously proud of his work as a surgeon, as acting chief of Cardio-thoracic surgery and cardiac transplantation at the University of Wisconsin and as chief of Cardiothoracic surgery, founder and chief of Cardiac transplantation and Heart Center at UCDMC, and as a professor of surgery who trained many, many students, residents and surgical fellows. But Dr. Berkoff was honestly just proud of his ability to help people to become healthy and whole. Maybe this quality is best captured by his delight in the little son of a newly transplanted patient who asked him, when he made rounds at the hospital on Christmas morning, if he was Santa who had given his daddy a new heart.
He was always happiest when he was able to help other people. After he retired from the medical center he taught at the medical school for a period of time, and was deeply valued there for the humanity and heart that he brought to his teaching. Many friends have spoken about the wise, comforting and unobtrusive help he gladly offered whenever there was a medical crisis, difficulty or question. Herb adored his family, and was inordinately proud of each of his children and grandchildren and how different and interesting they all are. They, in turn, saw him as their quiet and steady rock, who taught them to walk to their own drumbeat (even though that often made him very nervous), the value of service, and a love of humanity. He was also a large, gentle and constant presence to the children of family friends who saw him as someone they could count on to quietly love them and provide safe harbor. He loved the family’s multiple pets who, if asked, would say they felt the same safe harbor and constant love. He was hopelessly fond of gardening, grew at least 4 ripe strawberries each season, and could never bring himself to give up on any growing plant or tree, no matter how unproductive, old or wrongly placed it was. Friends have all commented, with haunting uniformity, on his kindness, steadiness, gentleness and unassuming ways. There are simply no words to describe the loss of this deeply beloved man. His funeral will be held on August 9th at 1:30 p.m. at the Davis Cemetery, and his memorial will be held on August 10th at 2 p.m. at Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis. Contributions to Doctors Without Borders, Planned Parenthood or the Southern Poverty Law Center would be gratefully received.