The Malibu Beach Recovery Staff
Dr. Milton Birnbaum
A Pioneer of Addiction Medicine in Los Angeles Dies
Dr. Milton Birnbaum, 80, died on December 24, 2009 at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica, CA. He was one of the first doctors in the Los Angeles area to dedicate himself to the field of addiction medicine. Trained as a pediatrician and general practioner, he was certified as an addictionologist in 1990 after recovering from his own addiction to pain medication.
He served as the Director of Addiction Medicine at STEPS/Anacapa by the Sea, Cri-Help and Creative Care as well as Medical Director of Promises, Passages, the Discovery Program, Beit T’Shuva, K.B. Recovery, and Malibu Beach Recovery Center (formerly the Marshak Clinic).
Dr. Birnbaum was an avid gardener, classical music enthusiast, world traveler and amateur chef. In addition to English he spoke Yiddish, Spanish and other languages. Born in 1929 to immigrants from Poland and Austria, he was raised in the Bronx and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, He received his B.S. from City College of New York, his M.A. from New York University and his M.D. from University of California at Irvine School of Medicine.
His sister Anne recalls that he began working as a teenager in Catskill Mountain resorts, where he was eventually promoted from busboy to lifeguard. He put himself though medical school working for the U, S. Postal Service at night.
Back problems led to his addiction to pain medication and an arrest by DEA for prescribing pain medication illegally. He was briefly incarcerated and then entered the Medical Board of California’s Diversion Program for Doctors. Dr. Birnbaum quickly came to terms with his own addiction and embraced the 12 Step program; the diversion program granted him an early release to begin a distinguished career in the newly emerging specialty of addiction medicine. Throughout the years, he detoxed thousands of addicts in and around Los Angeles, regularly delivered words of inspiration at 12 Step meetings, and helped numerous doctors in the diversion program get their licenses reinstated.
He was the recipient of the Hollywood Recovery Center’s Humanitarian award, and the Reward of Honor for being of service from Beit T’Shuva Recovery Home.
Dr. Birnbaum suffered from kidney disease, spending most of his last year in hospitals and nursing homes, always assuming he would shortly go back to work. He was buried December 26th at Mount Sinai cemetery with a ceremony arranged by his long time office manager Tom Wright.
He never married and is survived by his sisters Shirley Sloan and Anne Schleifer; brothers-in-law Morton Sloan and George Schleifer; nieces Janice Mann, Eva Sloan, Iris Lindel, Susan Schleifer; nephews Steven Mann and Howard Sloan, Ralph Lindel and Harvey Schleifer; and seven great nieces and nephews.
A memorial service organized by his Saturday afternoon Alcoholics Anonymous group will be held February 20, 2010 from 2-4, at The Women’s Center (901 Haverford, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272).
Contributions in memory of Dr. Birnbaum should be sent to Music Cares, 3030 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404, attention: Harold Owens.
The following is a tribute written by an alumnus of Malibu Beach Recovery Center, one of the many addicts Dr. Birnbaum detoxed over the past several decades:
“Dr. B is here and would like to see you.”
Those were the words I found myself looking forward to each day for a brief period of time a couple years ago. What would follow were 30 minutes or so of enlightenment from a man who turned his own adversity into a joyous and educational experience for all who came to know him.
I didn’t know Dr. B well but one could not be near him and not notice the ease at which he would handle himself with the most difficult or diverse people. If you were from Russia, he would speak Russian. If you were Brazilian, he’d break out into Portuguese. Whatever it took to open a door with someone, Dr. B had a charming way of making that attempt.
For me personally, I saw the spark in this man’s eyes and would find myself wanting to listen more than speak whenever I sat with him. It wasn’t so much about his wanting me to understand the nature of addiction and recovery but rather the joy he got from connecting with you that I noticed. From sharing his experience, strength and hope in such a genuine way. I remember many times saying to myself mentally as he spoke to savor these moments because my sense was that he wasn’t going to be with us much longer. You could see plainly how fragile he was at the time and how much physical pain he was in but I never once saw him lose that spark in his eyes. I know there were others here that witnessed the eventual deterioration of some of his abilities but my moments with him were brief and special.
During one conversation I expressed to him my frustration and longing to connect with my ethnicity despite my fervent resistance to organized religion. I could see he understood my struggle and in one sentence, he seemed to break it open for me. He said: “you have been given a heritage.” And it was in the juxtaposition of those words that I got a moment of clarity I never had before. “You have been given a heritage”.
He was one of those special people that if you’re lucky, life puts on your path sometimes to see if you’re awake and paying attention. I was and I did and what I experienced in the short time I knew him was a man who took the blows of life and turned them into lessons, anecdotes and service and if you were wise enough to listen while you were with him, you would walk away with a few more answers to life’s mysteries than you had before you met him.
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