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Patti M. Amsel, social worker and psychoanalyst, dies

Patti Amsel worked as as a social worker, psychotherapist and clinical instructor.
Patti Amsel worked as as a social worker, psychotherapist and clinical instructor.(handout / HANDOUT)

Patti M. Amsel, who worked with Maryland children, adults, couples and families during her 45-year career in social work and psychotherapy, died Jan. 23 of metastatic breast cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Cockeysville resident was 69.

Continuing to practice within six months of her death, Mrs. Amsel sought out joy and experiences even after receiving her grave diagnosis, traveling to California and South Carolina and buying herself a white Tesla.

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“The whole thing is, she kept on living,” said Dr. Sheldon Amsel, her husband of three decades. “She didn’t want to give up. She always hoped there would be a cure.”

Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Frank Michalek, a golf champion, and Doris Michalek, a registered nurse. She was a 1968 graduate of Trinity Preparatory School in Ilchester and went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Maryland School of Social Work in 1974.

She spent years as a social worker, psychotherapist and clinical instructor, rising to become director of psychiatric social work at what was then known as the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Institute of Psychiatry and Human Behavior. She went into private practice in 1994.

It was at the University of Maryland hospital that she met her husband, an internist. They crossed paths from time to time in the course of their jobs and ran into each other in the cafeteria, pledging to someday get lunch together. When they finally did get that lunch, it was decided, Dr. Amsel said; they started dating. The couple married in 1989.

Dr. Amsel said his wife’s patients often remarked on how freely she gave of herself.

“She saw herself as one of many helpers,” he said.

Mrs. Amsel continued training long after earning her degrees. She graduated in 2014 from the Baltimore Washington Institute for Psychoanalysis, known now as the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis Inc.

Amy Urdang of Roland Park first became friends with Mrs. Amsel when they were both in psychoanalytic training. They carpooled together from Baltimore to their classes in Laurel and went on to share an office suite.

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“Patti was probably the most patient, least judgmental person I have ever known,” Ms. Urdang said. “She was extraordinary, which made her a fabulous therapist and friend.”

Mrs. Amsel first faced breast cancer 20 years ago when her twin sons, Nicholas and Paul, were young. Doctors found a breast lesion, and Mrs. Amsel underwent chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and a bone marrow transplant. About two years ago, a routine mammogram revealed that her cancer had returned, and she continued various treatments.

“After it returned, we considered ourselves lucky that she had 20 years,” Dr. Amsel said. “It was very anxiety-provoking at the point we realized it was not curable. That’s where her courage came in. She went through treatments I couldn’t believe a human being could go through.”

The desire to be there for her sons gave her the will to fight, her husband said.

“She wanted to be a mother for those children as long as she could,” Dr. Amsel said. “She passed on her strong character to them.”

Vinny DeMarco of Northeast Baltimore said he admired Mrs. Amsel for her commitment to social progress. She traveled to Pennsylvania and Virginia to help organize for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, advocated for gun violence prevention and hosted a fundraiser to boost clean energy jobs and renewable resources.

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“I was always impressed by her hard work, smarts and dedication to making the world a better place,” Mr. DeMarco said. “The world is just not the same without Patti. We came to rely on her love and commitment and great sense of joy.”

The DeMarcos got to know the Amsels when their sons attended the Park School together. Throughout the years, Mr. DeMarco said, he learned from Mrs. Amsel, especially her ability to view situations through the eyes of others.

Elizabeth Large of Hadley Square in North Baltimore spent much of her friendship with Mrs. Amsel on the tennis court. She had a “world-class forehand,” Mrs. Large said. And the rivalry on the court brought out a different side of the loving Mrs. Amsel: a fierce competitor.

“She was very intelligent and fun and even though she was very well read and very intellectual, she could also enjoy going to an action thriller at the movies with me,” said Mrs. Large, who was The Baltimore Sun’s longtime restaurant critic. “She had such a wide range of interests, and it was a lot of fun to be with her.”

She relished books, enjoyed the arts and appreciated good food and wine. And she loved her dog Joe, a standard poodle.

Toward the end life, Mrs. Amsel grew out her silvery gray hair, arranged for afternoon tea with her friends, ate ice cream at midnight when she felt like it and bought the electric car she had wanted, Mrs. Large said.

“She did things that you and I are putting off,” Mrs. Large said. She last heard from her friend after Mrs. Amsel was admitted to the hospital, not long before she died, essentially saying, “Don’t worry about me.”

A celebration of life will be held at 3 p.m. March 1 at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville. The family asks friends consider a donation to the John Fetting Fund for Breast Cancer Prevention.

In addition to her husband and sons, all of Cockeysville, she is survived by a brother, Michael Michalek of Mount Airy. She was preceded in death by her parents.

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