A man walked in one day with a chemical burn from making computer chips; on another, it was a woman with HIV. It was the early 1980s, and Cheryl Berenson worked at a free clinic in Palo Alto, California, caring for low-income patients, some undocumented, doing the jobs “no one else wanted to do” at companies that would soon become giants of Silicon Valley.
Today, Berenson, a public health nurse, continues to work with individuals on the fringes of the community as a volunteer with the King County Public Health Reserve Medical Reserve Corps, providing care to those experiencing homelessness through open clinics and medical support during public health emergencies or disasters. Nine to five, Berenson works as a clinical research manager at biotech startup KitoTech Medical. Founded by her husband, Dr. Ronald Berenson, in conjuction with the University of Washington, he was the first translational medicine Entrepreneur in Residence, turning health research findings into medical practice.
Berenson also sits on the Program Committee of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility — a Seattle-based political action committee focused on preventing gun violence — and lobbied fiercely for Extreme Risk Protection Orders in Washington state. Approved in a landslide by voters in 2016, Initiative 1491 allows families and law enforcement to petition to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if there is evidence that the individual may harm themselves or others.
She has seen the intersection of suicide and gun violence firsthand more than once. While she was a student at the University of Utah, a resident and close friend took his own life. “I always think about how perhaps, with the work we have done today, he might still be alive,” Berenson says. More people die of suicide by firearm than by all other methods combined, and much of Berenson’s work with the Alliance involves the public health intersection with gun violence.
A state policy advocate for the National Council of Jewish Women, Berenson notes that the NCJW was the first Jewish organization to speak out about gun-violence prevention and successfully worked to close a major loophole in Washington’s background check process for gun purchases. “Even before the shooting at the Federation in 2006, we were trying to push the public health approach.”
She encourages community members to “get boots on the ground and buy-in,” whether that’s joining a board or using their expertise to develop tools to rid communities of the issues their neighbors face. As an honorary board member of the Holocaust Center for Humanity, Berenson believes that teaching young people about acceptance and empathy is key to a healthy society. “I’m a nurse with a public health degree — that’s my lens,” Berenson says. “An engineer might want to get involved with smart gun technology. People have different routes into advocacy.”
When asked about burnout, Berenson laughs. “Nurses invented burnout. Art is good. Friends are good. Family is good, most of the time.” The work can be incredibly sad, she adds, especially when someone is lost to a preventable situation.
But the number of people willing to talk about gun violence is growing, and the groundswell of national conversation around gun-violence prevention gives her hope. “The kids from Florida are right. This isn’t about school safety, it’s about reining in and developing safer options for our communities."