She graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in 1953. A Fulbright fellowship brought her to Boston Children’s Hospital, where she studied with Dr. Sidney Farber, the noted cancer researcher, among others. A drawing on his wall showing a circle of caregivers with the family at the center first got her thinking about how illness affected more than just the patient.
“A family with a sick child is a sick family,” she said. “So you must think about everybody — the siblings, the mother, the father, maybe grandmother. You must remember that they’re part of a group.”
In 1964 she moved to the University of Chicago, and in 1969 she took the job in Philadelphia, where as chief of pediatric oncology she became known for doing things a little differently. Once, for instance, she realized a young patient might be less resistant to treatment if she were allowed to bring her pet rabbit into the unit. Another child brought a parakeet.
“Fortunately, nobody liked oncology,” she said in a recent interview. “The people who run the place would rather not go to the oncology floor. So I got away with things I could do in oncology which I’m sure you couldn’t have done on a healthy ward.”
She led the oncology unit for 20 years. When she first arrived, feeling the call to care for children, “there wasn’t much else you could do but care,” she said — the mortality rate for young cancer patients was high. She thought she could at least help them through what was ahead.
“I knew a lot of them were going to die,” she said, “and I could talk about dying.”
But during her tenure the mortality rate dropped — by 50 percent for neuroblastoma patients, according to many accounts. Meanwhile, Ronald McDonald Houses opened by the dozens. The houses, as she envisioned them, would not merely provide a cheap bed but also home-cooked meals and emotional support as “veteran” families mingled with newcomers.
“People in these houses know the trials of having a sick child,” she told US News & World Report in 1981, “and will help if you want to cry and help if you want to celebrate.”