Anachnu: Dr. Bill Sperling

Bill Sperling stands in front of his 37-foot motor home

Bill Sperling stands in front of his 37-foot motor home

Editor’s note:  Anachnu, which means “we” in Hebrew,  is a new column by San Diego Jewish World editor Donald H. Harrison, in which he will tell about the Jews he meets–those who are famous, and those who are not. All of them have interesting and worthwhile stories.

A doctor who campaigned against cigarette smoking

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO–Next time that you go to a restaurant in California and take a deep breath without coughing, you can thank Dr. Bill Sperling for all the work he did as chairman of the Respiratory Care Committee for the San Diego chapter of the Lung Association.

As a pulmonary critical care doctor at Kaiser Permanente Hospital on Zion Avenue, Sperling knew all too well the damage that first-hand and second-hand smoke did to his patients’ lungs. So, along with other doctors, nurses and paramedics, he worked hard and successfully to win local bans on smoking at such places as Qualcomm Stadium and the San Diego Airport at Lindbergh Field.  By continually calling upon state legislators from San Diego County to tell them about the medical impacts of smoking, he helped to persuade the California Legislature to ban smoking in restaurants throughout the state.

Sperling participated in this campaign while working fulltime at the Kaiser Hospital with critically ill patients “who required mechanical ventilation and very close observation and decision making,” he recalled. That and serving as a professor at UCSD Medical School were not his only additional activities, not by a longshot. At one point he contacted over 300 physicians within his district of the San Diego Medical Society and persuaded them to elect him as their representative on the society’s council. At the time, many doctors in private practice were philosophically opposed to pre-paid Health Maintenance Organizations like Kaiser, so the fact that Sperling was able to persuade them to vote for him is a testament to his persuasiveness.

So active was Sperling in the San Diego Medical Society  that his wife Barbara joined its auxiliary board and by dint of her organizational skills rose to the presidency.  Bill, also active in the California Medical Association, gave briefings for his medical colleagues throughout San Diego County on pending legislation at the local and state levels affecting medical practice. Barbara meanwhile became president of the California Medical Association’s Alliance Foundation.

Bill and Barbara Sperling

Bill and Barbara Sperling

Some of Bill’s other medical-related volunteer activities included giving speeches to fifth and sixth graders about the dangers of smoking in a program with the media-cool name of “Tar Wars.” He also served as a volunteer medical consultant for the homeless clients of St. Vincent de Paul. He and Barbara also helped to raise money and awareness for the Wellness Community, a cancer support group.

During the 27 years he was at Kaiser, if you were to clear Bill’s schedule of all his medical volunteering, you’d have found that he still was very busy helping to raise his and Barbara’s two children, Mark and Sara, volunteering for KPBS, and participating with Barbara in such activities as RVing, traveling abroad, hiking, riding tandem bicycles, and playing tennis.  He is also an “amateur” radio operator. (He doesn’t say “ham” radio)  Married 51 years as of last August 1, Bill refers to Barbara as “his best friend.”  Barbara also is his collaborator on various projects, and now that he is Men’s Club President at Tifereth Israel Synagogue and she serves on the Conservative congregation’s Sisterhood Board, it won’t be surprising if some joint Men’s Club-Sisterhood activities were in the offing.

The couple met while Bill was studying chemistry at the New York University (NYU) campus in the University Heights section of the Bronx.  The more biological science classes Bill took, the more interested he became in becoming a doctor.  In his third year of college, a year before graduation, he was given permission to enroll in medical school at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo.  After obtaining his medical degree and interning in Buffalo, he became a Navy doctor, serving three years.  One of his duty stations was San Diego, where he decided to stay when he became a civilian. He did his residency at UCSD Medical Center, followed by a pulmonary critical care fellowship, and then went to work at Kaiser.

You might think that now that he’s retired, Bill would be slowing down, but actually there is no sign of that.  In what he calls “Phase Two” of his life, he not only has become the Men’s Club president, but, among other activities, serves on the Mission Trails Foundation Board, participates in volunteer patrols of Mission Trails Regional Park, is a member of the Community Emergency Response Team, for which he lectures about disaster preparedness, and serves in the Medical Reserve Corps, ready to be activated when needed for emergencies.

With so many activities filling their lives, the Sperlings watch very little television. He says people who say they don’t have time to participate in activities typically are mistaken; they can make time, he says, by reordering their schedules.  For him, says Sperling, volunteering is a way to demonstrate his appreciation for the opportunities he has enjoyed as an American.  He grew up in a Bronx, N.Y., working class family — his father was a cab driver — and thanks to public school and scholarships, he was able to go to college and on to medical school.  “We live in a country that has lots of freedoms,” he says. “When I look and see what is going on in the world today, when various groups want to put limitations on what individuals can do, I just feel so fortunate to live in a country that gives us all the freedoms and opportunities to do what we can.”

His daughter Sara has a 6-year-old girl named Ella, who recently went with her mother to a store where other families had made partial payments on items they had laid away.  Using her savings, and some of her mother’s, Ella helped to complete the payments for 10 poorer families unknown to her.  She was so exhilarated by giving to others, reported Grandpa Sperling, that upon arriving home, she immediately started going through her toys to see which ones she could donate to economically disadvantaged children.  “I cried when I heard about this,” Sperling confided.

Harrison is editor and publisher of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected].   Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)


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