By Marci Narum
Photography: Photos by Jacy
Everyone is vulnerable to pain. No human escapes life without being broken, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Dr. Lea Berentson says what a woman chooses to do with life’s heartaches can determine her personal legacy.
Lea has an intimate relationship with pain and brokenness; the threat of death has even rudely invaded her personal space more than once. But she declares these will not be her legacy. Lea made a choice to find meaning in her pain and says everyone has the freedom to make this choice. Lea helps women, especially new mothers, claim their own legacies in the pain, brokenness, and circumstances of their lives.
It’s all because of her personal life story…
Lea is a clinical psychologist in Bismarck. She has an outpatient clinical practice, but her primary focus is working with women struggling with pregnancy issues — infertility, pregnancy loss, an infant in the NICU, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, or postpartum depression.
It’s a specialized setting currently not found in other hospitals or clinics in the region: a mental health provider working directly next door to an OB-GYN.
“One of the privileges of my work is to be there with the mom; it’s such an intimate journey,” Lea says. “There are so many secrets, so many good things and not so good things we hold for that person. I really want to focus more in this area because hopefully it will help me be more proactive in preventing mental health issues in the long run.”
The reason Lea became a clinical psychologist can be traced back through a series of life circumstances involving fear, pain, and brokenness.
Lea and her husband, Dusty, have two girls — two little miracles by Lea’s estimation. She thought having children would never be possible. Lea can’t contain her joy when she talks about being a mother to Meadow Elle, 4, and Willow Sunshine, 18 months.
“They’re awesome, they’re everything,” Lea says through a wide, beaming smile. “Meadow is quirky, funny, strong-willed. She’s just goofy and loves to pretend. Willow is a little ray of light.”
But, Lea had to journey through some rather dark times to reach motherhood. Both pregnancies were high-risk and her babies came by emergency C-section. She had the most serious complications with Willow. At 29 weeks, Lea’s heart went into Afib and had to be shocked back into normal rhythm. Then, after Willow was born, Lea had been home with her new baby only one day when she needed to go back to the hospital.
“I noticed my whole body was filling up with fluid. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t lie down. I couldn’t breath. I thought I was having panic attacks and anxiety, but it just felt different,” Lea says.
The hospital physician diagnosed her with swelling. Lea wasn’t satisfied, though; she knew something wasn’t right and followed up with a cardiologist. An echocardiogram showed Lea had peripartum cardiomyopathy — pregnancy-related heart failure. Had she not persisted to get answers for her symptoms, Lea could have died.
She says there is no good reason her heart started to fail; she didn’t have the common risk factors. Lea did, however, have a history of chemotherapy treatments when she was 9, and she wonders if it could be connected to what happened.
Lea was born in North Dakota, but when she was in the second grade, her dad got a job in Arizona, and moved the family — Lea, her brother, Joe, and their mom — to Sedona. She has fond memories of playing t-ball, catching lizards, and having fun with her cousin McKenzie. With another radiant smile, Lea recalls, “Mom would cut our sandwiches into perfect triangles and would drop off treats at school for my classroom.”
But, an accident on the school playground set things into motion for a pivotal change in Lea’s life.
“I was in third grade and I remember I was playing soccer on the playground at recess. I tripped over my friend Jesse. I couldn’t get up.”
Lea had broken her femur. She was airlifted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where an X-ray revealed more than a broken leg.
“They had to do a biopsy of the bone, and that’s how they learned there was a tumor. I had osteogenic sarcoma (OGS), and that’s why my leg broke so easily.”
Lea had two rounds of chemotherapy with no positive results. In a short time, the cancer spread and her doctors told her there was only one option. To save her life, they would have to amputate her leg.
“My oncologist told me, ‘Lea, we’re going to have to take your leg,’ and I said, ‘Where are you going to take it?’ I was just a kid,” Lea says, smiling.
Lea says OGS usually spreads and is not survivable. The outlook was typically grim for kids diagnosed with it. She counts herself lucky to have survived, and the amputation didn’t bother her.
“There were bullies and kids called me names. I’m sure there were moments when it was hard but those weren’t the things that bothered me. I had a lot of anxiety about using my prosthesis — that was my internal struggle. I was still climbing trees and skateboarding.
“I always found ways to be involved and I think back and the support from my family and friends and the community was crucial when other traumatic things started happening, too.”
Lea attended Camp Rainbow in northern Arizona every summer. The camp is a partner with Phoenix Children’s Hospital; it hosts kids who have or have had cancer or chronic blood disorders.
“I always looked forward to it,” Lea recalls. “My mom would make this shopping list and we would go to the store and get everything we needed. She was an amazing mom when she was there.”
Then Lea’s mom wasn’t there.
“I was 12. I remember her dropping me off at camp and she was crying like she was never going to see me again and I thought, ‘I’ll see you in a week, what’s the big deal?’ So, I go to camp and it was a great week.”
On the day parents arrive at camp to pick up their kids to go home, Lea’s mom didn’t show up. Lea waited several hours.
“Eventually, my dad and uncle picked me up. They said Mom had left. It’s kind of foggy. That was the beginning of my mom not being in my life.”
Everything spiraled from there. Lea learned her mom was using meth and living with some dangerous people. She slept with a butcher knife under her bed. Her dad received death threats and their home was burglarized.
What a series of potentially wreck-a-girl’s-life circumstances. A broken leg, cancer, amputation, maternal abandonment, and nearly dying after giving birth. But none of that destroyed Lea’s life.
“People who experience a lot of trauma, we get angry at God, we get angry at science, it’s part of the process. I believe in impermanence. I believe pain is part of life but we have a choice to suffer. I try to pass that on to the people I work with. We have to be comfortable with things being temporary because we all lose things in life. It’s a choice to suffer and there are lots of ways to do that, or there’s the choice to endure the pain and find ways to get through the pain.” Lea grins as she remembers getting through the pain when she was 9 and lying in her hospital bed.
“I would fantasize about my friends and me winning a talent show singing Wilson Phillips and lip syncing. It was a way for me to cope, thinking there are all these good things that can still happen.”
Lea says searching for answers is a common coping mechanism when bad things happen. It’s one way she handled her diagnosis of peripartum cardiomyopathy.
“When people experience loss or tragedy, we want to know why, but we also need to know when to stop asking that question and just accept that it is what it is. You’re not going to figure this out 100 percent. It happened, now we have to find a way to move forward.”
To get past the pain she experienced being abandoned by her mother, Lea is creating a new legacy.
“I hope I’ve broken a cycle. I could never fathom leaving my children. I want them to know if I have any control over it, I’m going to be in their world as their mother — always. I see the broken attachments from my mother’s side of the family; I’ve already changed that and I intend to keep it that way.”
“That’s why I’m passionate about (my work). It’s not just about identifying and treating postpartum depression; it goes beyond that. We’re building healthier relationships between parents, whether it’s a mother or father, whoever the primary caregiver is, and their children. That relationship is so important moving forward for the rest of your life.
“I see a lot of moms “especially” who do not have great relationships with their own parents or maybe they have histories of trauma in their family of origin and maybe they don’t know what it’s like to have a nurturing relationship with a parental figure. But, they get to create that on their own. They get to create a new legacy.”