Kornacki: Newest Wolverine Brings Joy to Harbaughs, Berman
Deb Berman (middle) with Jim and Sarah Harbaugh

March 1, 2017

By Steve Kornacki

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The tweet that University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh posted soon after his youngest son and seventh child was born was recalled for Dr. Deb Berman, the physician who delivered him.

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Berman paused after hearing those words repeated and was clearly moved.

"Yeah," said Berman, "it touched me. As a maternal fetal medicine specialist, the nature of our work is that we deal with a lot of complex pregnancies. To have a patient and a family understand the gravity of the situation, and then to have a wonderful outcome is truly meaningful! He was born and blessed this world with his scream and his cry. It was time to celebrate the birth of a healthy kiddo.

"I think for us in the hospital, a patient is a patient, irrespective of who you are or where you come from. They were in need of care and received wonderful care. I get very connected with my patients, and they were no different. It's been lovely. It was a special relationship, and it will continue being a special relationship."

Harbaugh was impressed by the love Berman -- a mother of two and former Michigan gymnast -- has shown John, his wife, Sarah, and the entire family.

"For so long," said Jim, "you might think life's a given. You feel like you're on the last string of the whole process, and it seems like at the end of nine months, the baby comes out. It seems like such a given.

"Then this goes right down the middle of the strike zone, and it was amazing -- being a mom and a dad (again) and everything."

He clarified that the first name of John Paul Harbaugh is not only for his older brother, John, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, but for John Feuerborn, his brother-in-law.

"Sarah has a brother named John, too," said Jim, "and I definitely named him after my brother, John Harbaugh, too. We thought of both of those uncles when we named him. They wanted the middle name to be John as well."

So, that would've made him John John Harbaugh?

"That was suggested," said Jim.

The middle name of Paul is for Sarah's brother. She joked about being the youngest of 11 children and not being able to get all of her brothers' names included.

A photo taken in Von Voigtlander Women's Hospital of Berman with Jim, Sarah and John exhibits the warmth they feel for one another and their pure joy over the successful delivery that was completed only 20 minutes prior.

"I was relieved that he was out and he was safe," said Sarah, noting that none of their previous three children were premature births. "So, at that moment, I was really happy. But also real prepared.

"Having Deb especially helped us. She's become a really good friend, and she has a brilliant mind. She was always very concerned about me and the baby. She really wanted to make sure that I was okay, that Jim was okay."

Later that delivery day, Jim tweeted:

Berman recalled: "Jim asked me after I delivered the baby, 'Deb, what's his wing span?' I burst out laughing and said, 'I can't say I've ever been asked a newborn's wing span. But we'll certainly measure his height, weight and wing span.' It was very cute."

Jim explained: "I just wanted to do all the measurables. I had asked other doctors to do that after births, but they wouldn't do it. But Deb is good, and she did it."

•   •   •

Jim was in Nashville, Tennessee, at the American Football Coaches Association Convention when informed that John was going to make an early arrival.

"The water broke six or seven weeks early," said Jim, whose son's due date was Feb. 26. "I was shocked and I was out of town. I got the message from Deb, some of it leaked on the Internet, and I said, 'What are we facing here?' I got home that night about midnight.

"Deb was calm, cool and collected when she came up with the strategy. She wanted to try to keep the baby inside Sarah for another week, but she made the call the next morning that the best thing to do was to have the baby. So, at one o'clock the next morning, away we went.

"Deb went over the complications and the risks, and the big one was that the baby could come out not breathing, and at that point it really came over you that life is not a given. I was thankful that I was alive, that my wife was alive, and just everybody. It's not a given, and here we go."

Uncertainty gave way to "gratitude" that day.

Jim said, "In this particular miracle of life, John needed help, and he got it. He got it from Deb's team and the team at the [neonatal intensive care unit]. The nurses there were unbelievable. They cared. They really, really cared and worked so hard. So, I had an attitude of gratitude. It's just great, and life is amazing. It's a blessing to be on a great team that you didn't even know you had. They are a miracle.

"I was just overwhelmed with gratitude. I came to know that (former Michigan athletic director) Dave Brandon had made a very generous donation to the NICU. You realize just what kind of team you are a part of and are thankful for."

Berman said, "Jim was in there for the whole delivery, the whole surgery. He had running commentary and was talking about it."

Berman noted that in the delivery room she thought of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler's mantra: "The team, the team, the team."

"The team is made up of the attending physicians, residents, medical students, nurses, social workers, clerks, housekeeping staff and neonatal ICU team members," she said. "It truly is the team, the team, the team, and that's what allows us to care for patients at the University of Michigan.

"Every single person does a great job in our department, and I am honored to be part of this incredible team. It is a gift to take care of all patients, including Sarah. I think she felt our entire team's passion for the work we do."

John Paul Harbaugh photo

John has been home for over one month now, but he was required to stay two weeks in the NICU at Mott Children's Hospital. The day he went home brought about pure joy.

"He was truly a fighter from the moment he was born," said Berman, "and they were spectacular as parents. They navigated things wonderfully, were gracious, and reached out for help.

"Sarah is a remarkable woman and is really fun to work with and be together with."

The Harbaughs also were touched by others.

"A lot of people reached out who had gone through the same process with their children," said Jim.

He mentioned Wolverines offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit and Jason Wallick, the football head coach at Garaway High in Sugarcreek, Ohio, as being those who shared their similar experiences in early childbirth with him.

"That really comforted me," said Jim. "There were a lot of things and a lot of emotions. He's not a starter yet. He's a last-stringer, you know. But he's pulling hard, and we're praying and doing what we can."

Sarah said on Monday (Feb. 27) that John Paul, who is six weeks old, now weighs in excess of seven pounds. They had photos taken of him on Sunday, and one shot jumped off the proof page.

John Paul already has learned how to grip the pigskin and is holding a football autographed by Michigan Hall of Fame coaches Schembechler, who coached his father, and Lloyd Carr while wearing a knit Wolverines helmet in front of Dad's No. 4 Michigan football jersey.

"John is thriving!" said Sarah. "He's going through a growth spurt and eating a lot more often. He's a good baby, using his voice a little more, eating and sleeping, and not crying too much. So, we've been lucky."

•   •   •

Berman's shared background with Harbaugh as a Michigan student-athlete helped them bond, she said.

"I am a high-risk obstetrician, and so I usually take care of complicated pregnancies. The nature of my work is rather intimate. I connect with women and families at an incredibly personal time in their lives.

"So to connect with Sarah and Jim was incredibly meaningful. They felt that, and I felt that. Our Michigan family, athletic bond, including Jim's football and my gymnastics, and our shared passion for the University of Michigan added to our relationship."

Berman competed in the all-around for the Michigan women's gymnastics team and was part of current coach Bev Plocki's first recruiting class. She was on four Big Ten championship teams and the 1995 squad that placed second at the NCAA Championships.

Berman photo
Deb Berman

"We had a spectacular team," said Berman, a three-time Academic All-Big Ten and Scholastic All-America selection. "We have stayed close over the past 20 years since we all graduated. I have stayed in touch with many of my teammates. Interestingly, because I am an OB, many of them have reached out with medical and obstetric questions over the years."

Her parents, Jack and Barbara, also are doctors and received their degrees from Michigan. Deb was raised in Los Angeles. She recalled them putting her on the plane for her recruiting trip to Ann Arbor and then turning to one another to say: "She'll go."

And she remained to "become nestled" at the University and in Ann Arbor.

While in medical school, Berman joined the Athletic Department's Medical Advisory Committee, working within the department "to help improve mental health and physical health for student-athletes." Through the years, she's given presentations to many athletic teams directed at their mental and physical well-being.

She's married to another former Wolverine gymnast, Rich Dopp, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Michigan. Prior to starting medical school, Rich served as the assistant coach for the men's gymnastics team and head coach Kurt Golder in his first season, helping recruit gymnasts that went on to win the 1999 NCAA championship.

Rich and Deb love to attend football games as well as many other athletic events with their children, and they enjoyed the Colorado football game last fall.

"We watched a punt get blocked," said Berman. "Somebody pounced on it, then it fell out of his hands, and somebody else pounced on it before Michigan returned it for a touchdown."

"I turned to my family and said, 'That's like the slippery watermelon -- the game in the pool where they lube up a watermelon with Vaseline.' We play that game in our neighborhood pool."

The football game came up during the Harbaughs' appointment the following week.

Berman recalled: "I said to them, in my not-so-eloquent description of a football play, that it looked like a slippery watermelon. I asked, 'What kind of football play is that?' He laughed his loud, booming laugh, and then at his press conference later that day, Jim re-told that story in a charming way."

What did the Harbaughs enjoy most about working with Berman?

"She was phenomenal, just great," said Jim. "Everything was just perfect. She's very talented, and she cares, she explained things well."

Berman couldn't have been happier with the end result.

"To be able to send home a healthy little Wolverine is meaningful," said Berman. "We want all of these little Wolverines to go home to be happy and healthy."

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