Three who excelled personally, professionally


DURING WOMEN's history month, we usually reflect on highly celebrated women on the national and/or international stage, often missing the significant contributions of those in our midst.

With that in mind, I'd like to share some personal reminiscences about three extraordinary local women physicians who died in the past 15 months.

While their deaths were noted in newspaper obituaries, and, of ++ course, those close to them have mourned their loss, many in the greater community aren't aware of these female pioneers' contributions to our society.

* Dr. Katherine H. Borkovich. I first met Dr. Borkovich, known as Katie, in 1961 when I was a newly minted intern assigned to the minimal care and diagnostic ward on Osler 7 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, now the site of the coronary care unit. Staffed by a practical nurse, two interns and a resident physician, it was designed for patients who needed diagnostic work-ups but not much nursing care. As the attending physician who oversaw patient care, Katie had a no-nonsense gruff exterior that covered the proverbial "heart of gold."

Early on, she taught me an unforgettable lesson about leaving no stone unturned in helping a patient. After hearing about suspicious findings on a patient's chest X-ray, Katie said she would check the patient's files for other X-rays at the City Health Department's Caroline Street clinic, where she also worked. True to her word, the next morning, Katie brought some critical information that helped make the diagnosis. That's the type of thing she always did.

A 1939 graduate of the Hopkins medical school, she pursued her career at a time when there were few women doctors. In 1972, she became the first woman elected president of the Baltimore City Medical Society (founded in 1788).

No politician, she was tenacious and outspoken in the pursuit of truth. What you saw was what you got. A survivor of a shipwreck in Antarctica that earned her the nickname "Unsinkable Katie," she crisscrossed the globe, invariably returning with stories of how she had aided a fellow vacationer who needed her medical expertise. For her, medicine was not a switch to be turned on and off. In 1979, an Evening Sun reporter impressed with Katie's stamina, asked her why she had returned to Antarctica only to experience another "hair-raising" adventure. Her response: "If you make it, you're happy the rest of your life." She died of a heart attack last June 4 at her home on Lakehurst Drive. She was 78.

* Dr. Mary Betty Stevens. Her influence on the specialty of joint diseases remains enormous. She originally came to Hopkins to pursue a Ph.D. but was encouraged to study medicine. Undaunted by a temporary setback in a first year basic science course, she wrote her parents: "I would rather be a good garbage collector than a poor doctor. But I can't believe that I can't be a damn good doctor." She went on to become a doctor's doctor, named by a national magazine as one of 120 top doctors in the country.

I had the good fortune to know her as a teacher, colleague, and physician to a family member. No matter how busy or sought after she was, she answered all her calls and ungrudgingly made time. Her trademark expression was a genuine: "Isn't that interesting!" To her, no patient was boring no matter how seemingly mundane the problem. The problem was important to them and that was enough for her.

In explaining her selection as the best clinical teacher in 1971, the senior class president commented: "A lot of people are brilliant in their field, but they can't manage to get their thoughts across. Dr. Stevens manages both, and at the same time she shows great concern for students." Her response was typical: "The students are the people who keep you honest. To put it quite simply, they teach me." In the '80s, when I sought out the best clinicians to teach clinical decision-making, she readily accepted and came up with a novel technique to involve the students. Despite important research on lupus, her devotion to students and patients slowed her academic recognition because she limited such traditional avenues to professorships as travel, writing and laboratory time. She was just beginning to receive an outpouring of much-deserved national recognition when a chronic disease claimed her at 65 this past September.

* Dr. Annie Martha Bestebreurtje. A native of Holland, Dr. Annie, as I called her, came to Hopkins in 1938 to study medicine. She married Dr. William Fitzpatrick and together they raised six children. Yet, she still managed to maintain a private practice in pediatrics, teach and serve as director of Goucher College's health services from 1963 to 1977.

I got to know Dr. Annie in 1983 through a rotation arranged by my co-director of the first year Ethics and Medical Care course designed to allow Hopkins medical students to observe practicing physicians. You could always tell the six students who had visited with Dr. Annie by the after-glow. It was as if the fire that had led them to choose medicine and which had been tamped down by the intensive basic science courses was once again stoked. Over the years, many chose to write their required essay on the effects of that visit.

Still, my most memorable encounters with her were not medically related. They occurred in a market in Ruxton where I would sometimes see her just before closing -- on her way home after office hours. I vividly remember how happy she was one festive holiday eve as she gathered some last-minute provisions for the annual family reunion. Not long after she died in November 1993 death at age 74, I went to the market and was struck by an eerie void. A long-time employee there agreed that her passing was so unthinkable that we half-expected to see her coming down an aisle.

It's common to hear people talk about the need for role models in everything from medicine to parenting. While I agree that having mentors who resemble you can be affirming, it's best not to set too narrow specifications. I have always found the search for role models both fun and an equal opportunity enterprise. So, it's with a sense of gratitude that I acknowledge these women who modeled honesty, persistence, enthusiasm, serenity and, above all, the ethos of helping that characterizes the profession of medicine at its best.

Peter E. Dans, M.D., writes from Cockeysville.

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