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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 8, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 16
Obituary: Frederick Heldrich, Revered Pediatric Diagnostician, Dies at 82


By Katerina Pesheva
Johns Hopkins Medicine

Frederick Heldrich, associate professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine and a master diagnostician who taught generations of fledgling pediatricians the art and science of solving medical puzzles, died Jan. 2 in Baltimore. He was 82.

"Dr. Heldrich was a pediatrician's pediatrician," said George Dover, pediatrician in chief and Given Professor of Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "For more than five decades, he trained pediatricians in the art of medicine, and seemed happiest teaching and learning new things, particularly at the bedside. He was a role model for us all."

Heldrich had the brilliant mind of a scholar, the sharp analytical skills of a sleuth and the heart of a caregiver, with an endless capacity for compassion and without a trace of cynicism, Dover noted.

Johns Hopkins, with its stream of complex cases, provided the ideal setting for Heldrich's restlessly inquisitive mind, his colleagues recalled.

As director of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center Diagnostic and Referral Clinic, he became something of a legend and the diagnostician of last resort.

"He is probably the single person about whom I've heard residents and students say most often, 'I want to be like him,'" said Julia McMillan, director of the Pediatric Residency program at Johns Hopkins. "He was warm and sensitive and immensely knowledgeable," she said. "He'd come to see a patient at the drop of a hat, always appearing in his bow tie."

One of Heldrich's former students, Michael Barone, now an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins and at St. Agnes Hospital, recalled, "When you're a medical student, you hear about master clinicians, and I knew I'd met one as soon as I met Dr. Heldrich. His humility was remarkable. He was always courteous and valued every opinion, no matter how far-fetched. His colleagues admired him, but virtually everyone who met Heldrich revered him as a gentle man."

Colleague Charles Shubin recalled a telling account of Heldrich's deep embarrassment after learning that St. Agnes Hospital, where he directed the Pediatrics Division for many years, had named a lectureship after him.

"He didn't have an arrogant bone in his body; that's how nice and how modest he was," said Shubin, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins and the head of Pediatrics at Mercy Family Care.

After spending five decades on the front lines and seeing tens of thousands of cases, Heldrich was a reservoir of knowledge for his residents and students.

"Because of his vast experience, Heldrich used anecdotes and cases that he'd come across in his practice in a manner that was very illustrative and very helpful to the students," McMillan said.

Heldrich believed that the most critical skill for a pediatrician was the ability to listen to his patients, and it was something he told his students time and again.

"He taught us that without a detailed patient history and detailed physical exam, all else is a misguided effort," Barone said. "It was a skill he elevated to an art."

Colleague Michael Burke, chair of Pediatrics at St. Agnes, recalled, "He taught pediatricians the three A's of medicine: ability, availability and affability."

Perhaps because he grew up in an era when doctors could rely on little more than a stethoscope, palpation and observation to make a diagnosis, Heldrich belonged to a generation of physicians whose skills were sharpened by the absence of advanced imaging techniques and invasive procedures. Indeed, Heldrich was often exasperated by those too eager to use these as diagnostic crutches.

Heldrich received his medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1948 and served his residency in pediatrics there and at Mercy Hospital. He joined St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore in 1955 and served as chairman of Pediatrics there from 1970 to 1992. In 1992, he joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins and split his clinical work between Hopkins and St. Agnes.

Heldrich was a prolific researcher who co-wrote a book, Pediatric Emergency Medicine, in 1987 and published extensively on topics including infectious diseases, urinary tract infections, hemophilia, metabolic disorders and genetic conditions, such as Marfan syndrome, among others.

Heldrich remained active into his 80s, resuming some of his teaching duties even after he suffered a small stroke last summer. He enjoyed boating and closely followed local lacrosse.

Heldrich is survived by his wife, Eleanor; daughters Sarah and Susan; and sons Frederick J. III and Philip. The funeral will take place at 4 p.m. today, Jan. 8, at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Incarnation, 4 E. University Parkway.


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