Susan Coller was comfortable sharing her husband, Dr. Jerome J. Coller, with his patients. But she had to get creative to carve out time to spend with him — sometimes accompanying him to various hospitals after hours.
“I would always take a book because I knew it would be about an hour of sitting in the lobby of whatever hospital he was going to,” she said from her home in Baltimore. “That was just the life we led.”
Dr. Coller, an internist who started one of Maryland’s first multi-specialty medical practices and established a treatment program for impaired physicians, died June 12 at his home in Baltimore of heart disease. He was 94.
“I call them almost gentlemen physicians because they were truly the kinds of individuals that by virtue of their stature and the way they came across, they almost commanded respect without demanding respect,” LifeBridge Health CEO and former Sinai Hospital President Neil Meltzer said, teaming Dr. Coller with Dr. Irvin Pollack, a laser surgery pioneer who died in 2016, and Dr. Gershon Efron, Sinai Hospital’s chief of surgery, who died June 8. “They were just so knowledgeable and so bright and so caring that you couldn’t help but pay attention to them when they spoke. And he was probably one of the last of those.”
Dr. Coller was the youngest of two children born to Harry Coller, an attorney, and Mollye Cohen, a homemaker, in Baltimore, and the family grew up on Norfolk Avenue in the Forest Park neighborhood. He graduated from Forest Park High School, the Johns Hopkins University and finally the University of Maryland’s medical school in 1950.
Dr. Coller began his career in internal medicine, establishing an office in Baltimore. The practice eventually expanded to include 15 internists and sub-specialists and provided the community with a single source for all internal medical care. He also started and chaired the impaired-physician program for the Maryland Medical Society, offering doctors and medical care providers treatment and rehabilitation from addictions.
Dr. Coller joined Maryland General Hospital as a physician adviser to quality assurance and utilization review. From 1992 to 1998, he worked with doctors to counsel them on appropriate measures and evaluated the quality of care given to patients.
Beginning in 1998, Dr. Coller worked as the medical director at Maryland Physicians Care in Linthicum Heights and directed a staff of nurses responsible for quality assurance. For years, he also served as the medical director in charge at the Preakness for jockeys and fans.
Craig Coller said his father — who was affiliated with Sinai and Baltimore County General hospitals (now known as Northwest Hospital) — had helped so many people that dining at restaurants became an exercise in patience as the family was forced to wait for him to greet everyone who recognized him before sitting down at a table.
“He was a very humble person that would not talk about himself very much, but was far more interested in what was happening in your world,” Mr. Coller said from his home in Miami Beach. “I think that’s what made him so special to many people who felt like he’s the doctor, yes, but he took a great interest in you as a person, not just a patient.”
Mr. Meltzer, the former Sinai Hospital president, pointed out that Dr. Coller was the president of the facility’s medical staff, the chairman of the Department of Medicine Committee, and a member of the Medical Executive Committee.
“He held a number of leadership roles, and it showed that he had the respect and admiration of his fellow physicians,” Mr. Meltzer said. “He was kind of a physician’s physician, the kind of guy that other physicians would go to for advice and counsel and not just clinically, but for other kinds of information.”
Mr. Coller credited his father with saving his two granddaughters. When his elder granddaughter Molly’s condition worsened after a bout with chickenpox at the age of 2, Dr. Coller advised his son to take her to an infectious-disease specialist, who diagnosed that she was suffering from a secondary infection.
And when his younger granddaughter, Rachel, could not shake a series of crippling headaches while she was a student at Johns Hopkins’ School of Public Health, Dr. Coller pressed doctors until they discovered that she had viral meningitis.
“He was just so good at medicine and being able to figure out what was wrong with somebody — or at least say, ‘You need to look at this, and you need to check this out,’ ” Mr. Coller said of his father. “He was pretty determined when it came to that. So I’m very grateful to him.”
Dr. Coller married the former Marilyn Gerstein in 1953 after eloping to Georgia. After his wife’s death in 1967, Dr. Coller met Susan Slutkin on a blind date in the summer of 1969, and they married on Valentine’s Day two years later.
Mrs. Coller vividly remembered their first date. “He said he had to stop by Sinai Hospital,” she said. “I said, ‘Why? Are you sick?’ He said, ‘No, I’m a doctor.’ ”
When the couple married, Mrs. Coller brought her 4-year-old son, Andrew, who said he was never treated as a stepson by Dr. Coller.
“He was a father to me from Day One,” Mr. Slutkin said from his home in Baltimore. “He was the kindest, gentlest, most wonderful person. He was a great role model who taught me that education and hard work are the keys to success. And he always taught me — and I know this sounds hokey — to do the right thing. Whenever I had a tough decision to make, I would always ask myself, ‘What would Papa do?’ And the answer was always clear.”
Mrs. Coller said she and her husband enjoyed traveling to countries like Russia (“in 1975, which was quite brave,” she said), China, France, Italy, Brazil and Argentina, and purchasing about 100 antique page turners made of silver and ivory.
The couple also owned five racehorses and liked to attend horse auctions. Mrs. Coller remembered her husband mistakenly raising his hand during an auction and winning the right to purchase a horse they never intended to buy.
Did she scold him afterward? “Whatever he wanted was fine with me,” she said, adding that they donated the horse to a farm in Pennsylvania. “That’s the kind of relationship we had.”
Dr. Coller was buried June 14 at Oheb Shalom Cemetery in Reisterstown.
In addition to his wife and two sons, he is survived by four grandchildren.