Mark Brueggeman’s parents didn’t think their son would walk, much less finish high school, when he was born with hydrocephalus, a once-fatal condition that causes the head to expand because the body can’t absorb cerebrospinal fluid.
Then their South Dakota pediatrician sent them to Minneapolis, where in 1980 they met Dr. Kenneth Swaiman, who for decades was the nation’s leading pediatric neurologist. Eight years and 10 surgeries later, Brueggeman regularly stunned medical residents at the University of Minnesota when they met the child after looking at X-rays of his brain as an infant.
“They figured I was mentally retarded, so they ignored me and talked to my parents,” recalled Brueggeman, who finished college and now works as a police officer. “My mom would always say, ‘Why don’t you talk to him?’ It was pretty amazing. … Dr. Swaiman saved my life, basically.”
Swaiman, a resident of Minneapolis and Tucson, Ariz., died Sept. 18. He was 88.
A pioneer in the field of pediatric neurology, Swaiman grew up in north Minneapolis, where his father, Lester Swaiman, ran a popular barbershop on Plymouth Avenue. Swaiman’s parents were both immigrants. His mother, Shirley, was Lithuanian; his father came from Russia.
Swaiman was an exceptional student who skipped two grades and was allowed to enroll at the U at the age of 16. He graduated magna cum laude, with a liberal arts degree, in 1952. Swaiman was interested in medicine and law, but decided to become a pediatrician because he liked working with children. He wound up choosing neurology because he was always drawn to the biggest challenges.
“He viewed life as something you have to work really hard at,” said his youngest daughter, Dana Hoberman. “He had very high expectations of us when we were kids. He wanted us to navigate a path in the world that was meaningful, that we could be proud of.”
Swaiman spent almost his entire medical career in Minnesota. He ran the U’s Division of Child Neurology from 1972 to 1998, working as a clinician and a full professor. In 1975, he published the first edition of what eventually became known as Swaiman’s Pediatric Neurology, the most widely used textbook of its kind in the world. At 3,500 pages, the book is now too large to be printed. Many neurologists download the entire text to their phones so they can consult his research 24 hours a day.
“Ken was adamant that pediatric neurology was a specialty unto itself, and wasn’t simply neurology on little people,” said his wife, Dr. Phyllis Sher, who also worked as a pediatric neurologist.
Swaiman is credited with expanding the reach of modern neurology into many countries. He trained at least 80 pediatric neurologists and created international organizations that allow doctors to trade information and keep abreast of the latest trends in the field. Among the groups he founded are the Child Neurology Society, with more than 2,000 members in 22 countries.
“He had an enormous impact,” said Stephen Ashwal, chief of the child neurology department at Loma Linda University in California. “Hundreds of thousands of people benefited from his work, because doctors around the world could read this book and figure out what was wrong with the children they were treating.”
Swaiman stopped seeing patients in 2000, but he continued to edit a professional trade journal until 2012.
“I thank God that he created Dr. Swaiman, and that Dr. Swaiman used the gifts that God gave him to help our son and other children,” said Maxine Brueggeman, Mark’s mother.
In addition to his wife and daughter Dana, Swaiman is survived by two other daughters, Lisa and Barbara; a son, Jerrold; a sister, Sybil Klobucar, eight grandchildren and a great-grandson. Services have been held.