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Dear Diary:

Jean Kan, at the long-ago press conference.
About 20 years ago, I had to put on a press conference to announce a medical discovery at Johns Hopkins. I was a media rep in public affairs, and knew that the press would be attracted to the study. For one, it was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, which the media follow closely. Secondly, the advance we were announcing was significant, yet easy to understand. It was called balloon valvuloplasty, and used balloon catheters to open obstructed valves and narrowed aortas. (The procedure would replace open heart surgery for many children and adults.) It didn't hurt our "media package" that the first patient to have the procedure was a sweet and shy little girl of about 9 with straight blonde hair.

The trouble started over people's summer schedules. The co-author was available. He was an intense and jovial radiologist named Robert White. White had the persuasive powers of an insurance salesman and kept an office full of replicas of pigs (his research subjects). The other author, a pediatric cardiologist named Jean Kan, was on vacation.

The NEJM being what it is, my boss insisted we time the press conference to the journal's release date-perennially a Wednesday. She told me to call Dr. Kan and have her return early from vacation. She was staying at the Atlantic Sands Hotel in Rehoboth Beach, where I'd stayed not long ago myself on my honeymoon. I was still in my 20s at the time, sensitive at that, and dreaded dialing the telephone.

I don't know that I had ever spoken to Dr. Kan before. But a torrent of words were shot back at me when I told her who I was and what I wanted. How dare I call her when she was on vacation with her children? How did I get this number?

Dr. Kan held her ground and decided to stay put, and I was glad. We had the press conference when she returned, to no ill effect. She still harbored resentment towards me, however. When she found out that we had contacted her patient and invited the little girl and her father to the press conference, she accused me of creating a "circus."

But once we were under way, it went well. Dr. Kan was gracious to the press, and in the photos from that day, she looks serene and tan. I ended up with a fist-full of clips to show for all my trouble. Even better, Dr. Kan ended up with a batch of new patients. A few months later, our office conducted a survey of physicians with whom we had recently worked, and Dr. Kan wrote back at length, documenting the number of new cases the publicity had generated and confessing to her reluctance. For those of us who work in administrative areas like public affairs or development, this is as close as we get to having an effect on patient care, and it is a wonderful thing.

I left Hopkins for a time, but even after returning in 1993 did not have much occasion to see Dr. Kan, who would shortly thereafter be named director of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology. I was surprised to read that she was retiring this year at the end of June, and marked the date of her reception on my calendar. That day, I went early, hoping to have a word with her alone.

Do you remember me?

She certainly did, and introduced me to another doctor as the person who wrote about S.O., the blonde girl whose name I hadn't remembered until that moment. I recounted the story, how I'd called her on vacation at the Atlantic Sands, and someone had snapped, How did you get this number?

Probably my ex-husband, Dr. Kan replied.

She had been divorced for 10 years, had never remarried, and those children I had always envisioned splashing in the Atlantic Sands pool were, of course, fully grown. I shared my own situation with her, only 18 months of separation with three kids much closer to the splashing age.

It's very hard, I said. Some women make it look so easy.

It takes years to get over, Dr. Kan assured me. It destroys that whole image (here she made a sweeping gesture with both arms) you have of yourself.

I knew exactly what she meant.

Don't let anyone tell you it's easy, she continued. They're just holding it all inside if that's the case.

We talked about her plans for retirement. Gardening, hiking the Appalachian trail.

Then she took my hand, squeezed it, and said, Call me if you need to talk.

More people were arriving, and as Dr. Kan started to circulate, I helped myself to some fruit and crudites. Off to the side, there was a homemade chocolate sheetcake with an enormous heart made of red icing. Within minutes, the Houck Lobby had turned lively, with people turning up singly and in groups. Say you won't go, one of the residents said, there's still time to change your mind! Even some patients dropped by, it appeared, including a baby in a stroller who Dr. Kan looked especially happy to see.

I slipped out the front door, feeling warm in the moment. At Hopkins, "collegiality" is no buzzword.

-Mary Ellen Miller

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