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Dr. Panayiotis ‘Pete’ L. Sitaras, head of neurosurgery and chief of medical staff at UM Upper Chesapeake, dies

Panayiotis “Pete” L. Sitaras worked at Fallston General Hospital and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.
Panayiotis “Pete” L. Sitaras worked at Fallston General Hospital and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.

As a boy, Panayiotis “Pete” L. Sitaras spent his free Saturdays and holidays working in his father’s countertop restaurant in Baltimore. If he wasn’t serving customers, he was in the kitchen washing dishes, glasses and silverware.

That work experience was a boon for his wife, Diane Sitaras.

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“His whole life, he loved washing dishes. I have to say that I never got my hands wet,” she said with a laugh. “That was the one thing he always did.”

Dr. Sitaras, who grew up to become a neurosurgeon and head of neurosurgery and chief of medical staff at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Sept. 29 at Commonwealth Senior Living in Forest Hill. He was 79.

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Dr. Spiro Antoniades, an orthopedic surgeon who worked with Dr. Sitaras, said the latter exemplified a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky that the former paraphrased as “All human beings are born beautiful children.”

“Life weighs on people, and they become either jaded or angry or mean or miserable,” Dr. Antoniades said. “But he never did. He was just always a kind person. He maintained that innocence and sweetness of childhood.”

The third of four sons born to and raised in Highlandtown and then Hamilton by Louis Sitaras, who eventually sold the restaurant to work for a restaurant supply company, and the former Helen Paidas, a homemaker, Dr. Sitaras was a tenor in the choir at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church of Baltimore, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore, and Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Baltimore. He directed the choir at Baltimore City College until his graduation in 1961.

After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1965, Dr. Sitaras graduated from medical school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 1971, served a one-year internship at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and then returned to Baltimore for a five-year neurosurgery residency at the University of Maryland, Baltimore that included a six-month stay at Queens Square Hospital in London.

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During his residency, Dr. Sitaras was asked by family friends to provide medical advice on their daughter at Fallston General Hospital in Fallston after she had suffered a head injury during an accident. After that visit and after finishing his residency in 1977, Dr. Sitaras moved his family to Harford County where he stayed for the remainder of his life.

Often the only neurosurgeon in the county, Dr. Sitaras had few days off and avoided long vacations out of state. But he loved his work, according to his wife.

“He always came home happy,” Mrs. Sitaras said from her home in Fallston. “He operated on the spinal cord, and he did brain surgery, and he also did carpal tunnel surgery. But he loved what he did.”

Dr. Harvey Pats, a neurologist who had known Dr. Sitaras since they were residents at the University of Maryland, Baltimore in the 1970s, worked with Dr. Sitaras at Fallston General from 1981 to 2000 and at Upper Chesapeake from 2000 until Dr. Sitaras’ retirement in 2014. He said Dr. Sitaras rarely tired, and his patients were fond of his bedside manner.

“They loved him, his mannerisms and his friendliness,” Dr. Pats said. “He would spend time talking to patients, and it was all positive.”

Dr. John Taylor said Dr. Sitaras was instrumental in encouraging him to co-found Agape Physical Therapy with 11 offices, including eight in Harford County. Dr. Taylor said he experienced Dr. Sitaras’ patient care when he was diagnosed with the neck “of an 80-year-old” in 1983.

“He was not quick to surgery,” Dr. Taylor said. “He was more conservative. He said, ‘If we can do this without surgery, that’s what we’ll do. But if we have to do surgery, we will.’ He really would give you the options and present everything in an unrushed fashion, which is just lost sometimes in today’s medical world. He would just take the time, and you could see from his heart just how much he cared about each person that he treated. He would say, ‘You know, John, in today’s medicine, people are entrusting their health to us, and that’s sacred.’ That always stuck with me.”

Dr. Antoniades said Dr. Sitaras based his philosophy of taking care of patients as if they were his family members. Dr. Antoniades said Dr. Sitaras told him that outlook stemmed from his time operating an ice cream truck during the summer to put himself through medical school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

“Dr. Sitaras asked the owner, ‘How do I do this? The kids are really unruly and messy,’” Dr. Antoniades said. “The owner said, ‘Just imagine that these kids are your children. How would you act if they were your children?’ That’s how he practiced, and I try to do the same thing.”

Mrs. Sitaras, who said her husband was known as “Popsicle Pete” during his ice cream-selling days, said when they first moved to Harford County, her husband often treated patients who didn’t have the money or insurance to pay their medical bills.

“A lot of them would bring him presents,” she said. “One man, in order to pay him, brought him a cord of cedar wood to burn in the fireplace. Somebody else gave him a bushel of apples, and he was happy with that. I would joke and say, ‘How are we going to pay the bill with apples?’ But he was very happy. He was very honored that they did that.”

Dr. Pats said Dr. Sitaras’ retirement in 2014 created a void in the county. Dr. Antoniades said Dr. Sitaras will be sorely missed.

“His legacy is the reputation he had in the county of being a fair, nice, decent man, and everybody knows that,” he said. “Unfortunately, everyone eventually dies, and our memories are forgotten. But while he was on this earth, for the reputation that he had and what he did for people, everybody remembers him for the care that he gave to people.”

Dr. Panayiotis "Peter" Sitaras is joined by family members after the Harford County Council proclaimed him a Harford Living Treasure in 2014.
Dr. Panayiotis "Peter" Sitaras is joined by family members after the Harford County Council proclaimed him a Harford Living Treasure in 2014. (XX)

The former Diane Pavlos said her aunt and Dr. Sitaras’ mother arranged for her and Dr. Sitaras to go on a blind date in 1970. Initially unimpressed, Ms. Pavlos agreed to her father’s suggestion of giving her suitor another chance.

“So I did, and we liked each other,” she said, adding that the couple married May 30, 1971, at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. “The second date, we got to be more relaxed with each other. So we had a good time.”

Mrs. Sitaras said her husband enjoyed spending time with his family and dogs, gardening, traveling and shopping for antiques, especially carved decoys and Louis Icart prints. Her husband also had a soft spot for animals.

“He also introduced two black swans onto the pond,” she said. “During snowstorms, he would gather up the swans and put them in our garage with a heater.”

Besides his wife, Dr. Sitaras is survived by two daughters, Liz Sitaras Wilcox of Jarrettsville, and Tiffany Sitaras Fowble of Ellicott City; one brother, Father Costa L. Sitaras of Garrison, New York; and three grandsons and one granddaughter.

A funeral for Dr. Sitaras took place Oct. 4 at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore. He was buried at Highview Memorial Gardens in Fallston.

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