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What I learned from Dr. Bernadine Healy

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After hearing the sad news this morning that my former US News and World Report colleague Dr. Bernadine Healy passed away, I’ve been reading through the obituaries and thinking how little they portrayed the “Bernie’’ that I knew.

The New York Times wrote that Healy was the “first physician to lead the American Red Cross until she was forced out in a storm of criticism over flawed responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.’’ The Associated Press called her “forceful and outspoken,’’ while the Cleveland Plain Dealer described how “she clashed with many foes.’’

No doubt, it takes a strong-minded, steel-willed person to achieve all that she had: She graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1970 at a time when women made up a tiny minority of the class and went on to become the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health. She also headed the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health, the American Heart Association, and the American Red Cross.

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But none of the articles portrayed the warm, compassionate woman who came into work each day with her easy smile and gentle blue eyes. Her office door was literally and figuratively always open for journalist colleagues looking for her expertise as a cardiologist to interpret, say, the latest study on statins or to ask her advice on the treatment of a loved one’s breast cancer — or their own.

Bernie, as she was known to her countless friends, was, perhaps, the most approachable person in the office, despite being the most famous. Friends and even office acquaintances asked her to look at their rashes, to help them get emergency appointments with top doctors at Johns Hopkins (where she used to work), and to give them advice on their dating life. She never once, to my knowledge, turned down a request for help even when on a deadline for her weekly health column.

When my father-in-law was sick, she counseled me on his care and then consoled me when he passed away, even while struggling with the loss of her stepson and mother in quick succession. She gave me advice when a family member was portrayed negatively in the press by recalling her own experiences being villified by journalists.

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“Debbie,’’ she said, “the truth will come out eventually. It always does.’’

She was right, but that didn’t surprise me because she was “almost always right,’’ as my former colleague Avery Comarow, US News’ health rankings editor, said in an interview yesterday with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

That wisdom may have come from asking questions when others were already convinced they had the answers. Bernie pushed through the multi-million dollar Women’s Health Initiative because she was alarmed that gynecologists were routinely prescribing hormone therapy to postmenopausal women in the fervent belief that the drugs would prevent heart disease and other aging ills without having any firm evidence that this was the case.

When the clinical trial found the risks of the therapy outweighed the benefits, she worried that the pendulum swung too hard in the other direction against hormones, with some doctors refusing to prescribe them even in women with severe menopausal symptoms.

She told me time and again that as important as clinical trials are, doctors should never forget to consider the individual patient’s unique medical history and needs when making health care decisions.

No question, Bernie had strong opinions about the way the world should work. As she once told an NIH interviewer, “I never compromised my core beliefs, never wobbled on what I believed to be right.’’ And those with strong beliefs, who aren’t willing to bend to make friends, often find themselves getting into a few fights along the way.

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But the battles she took on were noble ones, like pushing to get the International Red Cross to admit the Israeli offshoot, Magen David Adom, into the organization despite the objections of some Arab and European countries — and the call for more research into rare injuries caused by vaccines.

The two of us ruffled the feathers of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2009 with our coverage of vaccine risks in US News and World Report. We talked about the need for more research to determine whether genetic variations make some kids more susceptible to life-threatening vaccine reactions that occur in very rare cases — fewer than 1 in every 100,000 of those who are immunized. As Bernie wrote in this column applauding government efforts to fund vaccine safety research, “vaccines are of vital importance to human welfare, and new and better technology enables researchers to address as never before gaps in knowledge about how to use them more safely and effectively.’’

Was she anti-vaccine as some of her critics contended? Hardly. But she also knew that she could strongly support vaccinations while also calling for more studies to improve their safety. That’s the sort of nuanced position that many public health officials were loathe to take for fear of scaring patients away from immunizations.

Bernie’s goal was never to draw attention to herself but to those who don’t get invited to appear on FOX or CBS. Every forceful comment she made and every foe collected was done so with the sheer passion and belief that she would be helping to improve the health and well being of others. She will be missed by all those whose lives she touched.

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