Dr. Rhonda S. Fishel, the acting chief of surgery at Sinai Hospital who used her own cancer diagnosis as a basis for creating a program that helped guide fellow physicians in delivering bad news to patients, died Sunday of the disease at Seasons Hospice at Northwest Hospital Center.
The Owings Mills resident was 55.
The daughter of a surgeon and a homemaker, Dr. Fishel was born in Baltimore and raised in Pikesville. She was a 1973 graduate of Pikesville High School.
She attended Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., for two years before entering the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, from which she graduated in 1978.
Dr. Fishel completed an internship at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a fellowship in critical care at the University of Pittsburgh.
"I have known her since the 1980s, and she was an extremely bright and competent woman. I took her in, and she did research at Sinai for three years before completing her surgical residency," said Dr. Gershom Efron, who retired as chief of surgery at Sinai Hospital in 1999.
"She was like the daughter we never had. She was a wonderful doctor, and the patients adored her. She was a meticulous surgeon — a little slow — but meticulous, and nothing ever went wrong," Dr. Efron said.
"And she was never frightened if she had to call for a second opinion," Dr. Efron said. "She was a first-class doctor and a marvelous teacher."
Dr. Adrian Barbul, former chief of surgery at Sinai Hospital who is now head of surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, was an old friend and colleague.
"I got to know her when she was a resident," Dr. Barbul said. "Rhonda was a very fine surgeon who was deliberate, with safety always being her primary goal. And she always had wonderful results."
He added that Dr. Fishel "always spent a tremendous amount of time with her patients."
In 2001, Dr. Fishel's companion, Michaela "Mickey" Barron, a nurse practitioner, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"Dr. Fishel was no stranger to the delivery of bad news. She was the one who jotted notes furiously as the doctor discussed treatment options, while Ms. Barron's mind struggled just to get past the word 'cancer,'" reported The Baltimore Sun in a 2006 article.
Four years later, Dr. Fishel was diagnosed with uterine sarcoma, a rare cancer.
"I never understood what it felt like physically, until I had to go through it. It's like a pain in your chest," Dr. Fishel said in the interview.
Her illness became the basis of a program she called "On Receiving Bad News."
She began instructing medical professionals in the compassionate art of delivering bad news. Her intention was to give physicians an added tool that is not often taught in medical school.
"You go into these rooms knowing that you're going to destroy people's lives," Dr. Fishel said.
She was buoyed in her quest after giving a lecture on the subject at her nephew's class at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri.
Dr. Fishel, who also had a second career as a stand-up comedian performing at clubs in Florida, Baltimore and at private parties, employed humor, personal anecdotes and stories from her own experience and patients in her remarks.
Her chemotherapy treatments had left her without her hair, which she used as a self-deprecating humorous example of what happens as a result of treatment.
In a lecture at Sinai's Zamoiski Auditorium in 2006, she told the audience, "This is what I call a hair distribution problem. When it falls off your head, it grows on your legs and face."
Because of her talk, Dr. Fishel was much in demand as a speaker and traveled the nation speaking to doctors and health care professionals.
"She was a very strong person and overcame her own difficulties. She was a very unique woman," said Dr. Efron.
"In her lecture, she wanted to make physicians conscious of what the patient is thinking because we often become hardened to it," he said.
"She was just here in Hackensack on Oct. 19 to give her talk, which is very moving," Dr. Babul said. "But it is also delivered with her wry sense of humor and was totally devoid of self-pity. She talked about how poorly we deliver bad news.
"She predicated it on the humanistic aspect of medicine, which meant sitting down with the patient and making time for them and having empathy and compassion," Dr. Babul said. "You don't deliver bad news and then just walk out."
Dr. Fishel was the inspiration for a nephew to pursue a medical career.
"From the time I was a little boy, I spent a lot of time with her, and I observed how she took time to go and visit her patients at home or in the hospital at the worst time in their lives," said Dr. Matt Fishel, who is completing a residency in pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
"She really cared about them, and it showed how much a difference a really caring physician could make in their lives," he said.
"She never gave up and worked until the last few weeks. She was a very strong person and overcame her difficulties," Dr. Efron said. "She fought all the way and got five years rather than five months, which was the original diagnosis."
Comedy was an important element to Dr. Fishel's life outside the operating room
"She was a liberal Democrat, and her favorite thing was making fun of politicians," said Ms. Barron, who had been Dr. Fishel's partner since 1988 and wed her last year in Massachusetts.
Dr. Fishel and Ms. Barron were world travelers and experienced bicyclists.
"We took a bike tour of Italy, and we did a lot of hiking in Colorado," Ms. Barron said.
Services for Dr. Fishel will be at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road.
In addition to her wife, Dr. Fishel is survived by two brothers, Dr. Lawrence Fishel of Pikesville and Alan Fishel of Fairfax, Va.; two other nephews; and a niece.