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Dr. Kenneth Bernstein retires after 43 years

Dr. Kenneth Bernstein is joined by his wife Nancy during a retirement party in his honor Aug. 5 at the Madera County Office of Education. (Wendy Alexander)


After 43 years of practicing the art and science of healing, Dr. Kenneth Bernstein is retiring. Over 200 people made it official Friday evening at a retirement celebration for the Chief Medical Officer of Camarena Health Center.

With a warm outpouring of affection, Bernstein’s family, friends, and colleagues gathered at the Madera County Office of Education to pay tribute to the man known to most Maderans as “Dr. B.” As a constant stream of well-wishers surrounded the quiet, modest physician, they shared memories of his dedication to the well being of the community.

None, however, would have guessed the price he had to pay to become a doctor, including being arrested and jailed by Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco’s national guard while he was in medical school.

Born in Queens, New York, in 1944, Bernstein was strongly encouraged by his father, who was a pharmacist, to become a doctor. The elder Bernstein also implanted in his son the idea that there was no excuse for not succeeding. The younger Bernstein would hold fast to that dictum in the years to come.

After graduating from high school in 1961, Bernstein combined his premed studies with a degree in sociology at the University of Buffalo, graduating in 1965. Then it was off to Spain where he was accepted by the University of Zaragoza.

The ancient university, which had been founded by Emperor Charles V in the 16th century, offered Bernstein everything he wanted except courses in English. As the only American in his class, he had to attend lectures given in Spanish and then had to go home to study with a Spanish/English dictionary close by.

At the time, there was considerable discontent in that part of Spain because of the Basque separatist movement, and one day, the military shut down the university. Without knowing the university was closed, Bernstein rode his motorcycle onto the campus and was arrested.

When he asked to speak with an attorney, the jailer informed Bernstein that he would not be speaking with a lawyer that day. After he was released, an irate Bernstein reported the matter to the American Embassy. Not long after that a limousine carrying the American Consul General for Barcelona arrived at his home to take him to lunch.

Bernstein was advised to turn in his tourist visa for a resident visa and to remain silent on the matter. This he did.

Although he was not in sympathy with the Franco regime, and although he did not come to Spain fluent in Spanish, Bernstein met the challenges of both situations and graduated from the University of Zaragoza in 1973. The name on his diploma reads “Don Kenneth E. Bernstein.”

Bernstein completed a three-year medical residency at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, New York, on Long Island, in 1976 and headed for California to enjoy what some now call the “Golden Age of Medicine.” He wasn’t in California long before managed health care, with its HMOs, put an end to that era.

After a stint as an emergency room doctor, Bernstein opened his own practice and became a member of the staff of four hospitals. It was in this connection that he met Nancy Flemmer.

With the onset of increased oversight of doctors and hospitals, committees of quality assurance were mandated, and this brought Bernstein and Flemmer into a working relationship. She was the head of the records department at Valley West Hospital in San Jose, where Bernstein was on staff.

Without knowing what he was getting himself into, he consented to take on the chair of the hospital’s Quality Assurance Committee. The driving force behind the committee’s work, however, was Flemmer who, after pouring over the records, informed Bernstein which doctors had to be brought into line and insisted that he follow through.

Out of that experience, a romance followed, and they were married.

After nine years in San Jose, Bernstein was recruited by Westworld Community Healthcare, Inc., which owned a hospital in Chowchilla, to become its Chief Medical Officer there. When he accepted that offer, the Bernsteins moved to the Valley, never to leave.

While he was practicing in Chowchilla, Bernstein learned of a pilot program in Madera operated by Dr. Theodore Johnstone, called Primary Care Medical Group, in which he contracted with the state to serve patients.

Bernstein joined Johnstone, working from “eight to eight” five days a week and rotating duty on weekends. By late 1988, he was thinking about another move. This time it was just up the street to something called Madera Family Health Center.

It just so happened that Maria Lopez, Johnstone’s administrative assistant, had gone to work for Mary Murphy, CEO for Madera Family Health Center, and she encouraged Bernstein to meet with Murphy.

Murphy took the Bernsteins to dinner at the Vineyard and he decided to join her group. He was the first Chief Medical Officer of Madera Family Health Center, which became Camarena Health Center.

Now, 28 years later Camarena Health is looking for a new CMO and Dr. Kenneth Bernstein and Nancy are enjoying their semi-retirement. They have already hit a few Nevada casinos and have gone exploring in the California gold country.

But he still practices at the Family Medicine Residency Program in Merced, and is on the clinical faculty of the UC Davis Medical School.

They will no doubt spend some time with their children, Julie, 31, Jeffrey, 25, and Kevin, 19. And as for Madera, it may never forget Dr. B. The crowd that showed up Friday night give ample evidence of this. They know him as the doctor with a social conscience who cares and one who has the spine to do the right.

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