A Life: Dr. Susan Harper ‘had this great way of connecting with people’

  • Susan Harper with Joe O'Donnell, left, and Chris Worsham in an April 2013 photograph. (Lar Blackmore photograph)

  • During Geisel School of Medicine's Match Day in 2016, Susan Harper, the school’s longtime assistant dean of medical education, right, poses for a photograph with student Shelsey Weinstein. (Jon Gilbert Fox photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/16/2020 10:19:59 PM
Modified: 2/16/2020 10:19:57 PM

HANOVER — Among the hundreds of aspiring doctors she shepherded from Dartmouth Medical School to residencies around the world, Dr. Susan Harper recalled more about John F. Dick III than his goal of practicing internal medicine.

And the school’s longtime assistant dean of medical education wasted little time leveraging that intelligence upon Dick’s return to the Upper Valley and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in 2007.

“She remembered my passion for cross-country skiing and wound up recruiting me to coach with her in Ford Sayre’s recreation program for beginner kids,” Dick said last week. “Seeing her in that light was really wonderful. We had, like, 100 kids scurrying around Garipay Field and Oak Hill, and she managed to monitor all of them, knowing all of their names and faces and likes and dislikes. It was a pretty amazing thing to see.”

With little fanfare and lots of behind-the-scenes diligence, Harper amazed her many professional and personal constituencies from the time she entered DMS — now the Geisel School of Medicine — as a student in 1980 until a degenerative brain disease forced her to slow down a few years ago. She died at her Hanover home on Jan. 29, at age 61, in the company of her husband and fellow radiologist, Chris Nice, and their three grown daughters.

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin met Harper when each had a child start at the same cooperative preschool.

“Parents did one shift a month as a classroom helper, and she had this wonderful way of being fun-loving and in the moment, in a very open way,” Griffin said. “She’d be crawling on the floor with the kids, giggling with them. Yet it wasn’t over the top. It was a reflection of how genuine she was as a person. She had this great way of connecting with people where they were at. So much empathy.”

Harper’s way with people impressed Joseph O’Donnell for the better part of four decades, starting with an oncology course he taught at the medical school in the early 1980s.

“Every year before Christmas break, I’d talk to the students about my family and what the profession meant to me as a person,” said O’Donnell, now senior advising dean and director of community programs at Geisel. “Susan would come up to me afterwards, and was just so thankful that the faculty was able to share their humanity as well as their expertise.”

Harper fine-tuned both qualities while serving a residency in radiology at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., in the mid-1980s and brought them — as well as her first daughter, Katie — back to the Upper Valley in 1989.

Not long after, she joined the radiology staff at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction.

“She was always the most go-to, accessible person, if you had a tough case you really needed some help with,” O’Donnell said. “She always took the time, no matter how busy she was. And with her it was always about more than the technology. She was an amazing humanist. She always saw the person behind the X-rays.”

Harper applied the same principle in the medical school’s office of education for 25 years while writing letters of recommendation for and helping third- and fourth-year students prepare for their training post-Dartmouth

“At one of our meetings, I remember her drawing me a map of places along the East Coast, which was where I hoped to go, that might be a good fit,” said 2010 graduate Austin I. Kim, who trained at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Mass., and now works at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “And in addition to writing me a letter of recommendation, she spoke with a residency-program director on my behalf, which I didn’t ask her to do. I don’t know how she had the energy to do that with every person.”

And those steps started with getting to know the students.

“Before she even started asking about what you wanted to do with your career, she’d look you right in the face and get to know who you were: your family, who you were as an individual,” recalled Dick, a 2003 graduate. “With her, you really had someone you thought cared about you as a person, who you knew cared about you as a person.”

And Harper kept caring long after Match Day, the annual mid-March ritual at which she and the dean of the medical school would announce where each of the soon-to-be-doctors were going next — in Dick’s case, the University of Washington’s Affiliated Hospitals in Seattle and eventually back to Harper’s office.

“She could think back 10 years, tell you a student’s name, what their family situation was, what was in their minds when they were trying to find their way,” said Dick, now an associate dean of medical education at Geisel. “Sometimes she would come into the office in the morning and tell me about an anxious student who called late at night, after a job interview or something, wanting to be debriefed about what happened. She never complained about that, even though it wasn’t her role at that point.”

For one thing, Harper knew how to draw boundaries in much the way she kept up with her undergraduate biology studies at Harvard while competing in NCAA Division I track.

“She schlepped her girls and their friends all over the place for cross country and squash and whatever else they were doing no matter what else was going on in her life,” O’Donnell said. “She always made the time, and it showed. My daughters baby-sat those kids when they were little, and they’d say that she had the most amazing kids in the world.”

Other parents noticed as Katie, Emily and Hannah grew.

“Among the families I’ve gotten to know through my children, there’s always been a subset of families that just raise extraordinary kids — kind, thoughtful, bright, enjoying their own successes and grounded,” Griffin said. “They were clearly loved at home.”

Harper also believed in keeping Hanover’s outdoor resources accessible for her girls and for all children, serving a number of years as a board member and volunteer on the nonprofit Hanover Conservancy. In addition to joining many of the group’s hikes on conservancy lands, she threw herself into the annual Kite Day held on the group’s Balch Hill preserve and got involved with Ray School environmental education program, former conservancy board president Betsy McGean said.

“She was the consummate volunteer and was always interested in learning the practice and discipline of conservation,” McGean said. “She was a very curious person, always trying to learn and grow.”

Harper’s multi-tasking amazed her fellow clinicians, students and support staff.

“She always made it look so seamless and to do it with such joy,” Dick said. “She was an unflappable person, despite everything she had on her plate.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.

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