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Mary Ellen Skalina, retired neonatologist, inspirational colleague, and community volunteer, has died at 70

"The example of Mel’s grace, as a trait to emulate, is a gift she gave, and will always give, to all who were fortunate enough to have her as a force in their lives," a colleague said.

Dr. Skalina cared for babies at Cooper University, Lankenau, and Chester County Hospitals over her 30-year career. "What stands out to me about her as a mother is her quiet but deep empathy and kindness," her daughter Lauren said.
Dr. Skalina cared for babies at Cooper University, Lankenau, and Chester County Hospitals over her 30-year career. "What stands out to me about her as a mother is her quiet but deep empathy and kindness," her daughter Lauren said.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Mary Ellen Skalina, 70, of Springfield, Delaware County, a retired neonatologist at Cooper University, Lankenau, and Chester County Hospitals, an inspirational colleague to many, and community volunteer, died Friday, July 29, of complications from Parkinson’s disease at Bryn Mawr Hospital.

Over her 30-year career, Dr. Skalina cared for hundreds of critically ill and premature babies, counseled their families with compassion and candor, and charmed coworkers with a rare ability to listen attentively, teach effectively, and react accordingly in times of crisis.

“Mel navigated her world, personally and professionally, with an ever-palpable grace,” said John DeMaio, former medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Lankenau. “Grace in all the wonderful dimensions that word encapsulates — empathetic, authentic, measured, poised, charming, elegant, humorous, joyful. …This was a wonder and privilege to witness.”

Stress and exhaustion, daily hazards of her work, seemed to have little effect, and Dr. Skalina was known to appear in the delivery room in scrubs, pearls, and high heels. Her husband, Stefan Skalina, a fellow physician, marveled at her composure, especially one time during which they cared simultaneously for three sets of infant twins and a singleton.

“I was a wreck,” he said. “I looked over at her, and she was calm, composed. She kept her wits about her. She knew how to keep it together.”

Dr. Skalina treated breathing disorders, birth defects, infections, and other conditions, and comforted babies she knew would not survive. She published often-cited important early research on neonatal hypertension, respiratory distress syndrome, and other issues regarding newborns in the American Journal of Perinatology, the Journal of Pediatrics, and elsewhere.

She served on the board of directors for A Better Chance Strath Haven, an organization in Swarthmore that sponsors educational opportunities for students of color at Strath Haven High School, and as a volunteer at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford.

“She was bright and funny,” her husband said. “She had high standards for herself and worked hard to live up to them”

Born March 7, 1952, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mary Ellen Leder, nicknamed Mel for her initials, was an exceptional student and graduated two years early and as valedictorian at prestigious Erasmus Hall High School. She was interested in genetics as a young student and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Rochester.

She decided to become a doctor and earned her medical degree at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, now the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She served a residency in pediatrics at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and a fellowship in neonatology at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.

She met her husband at Rainbow in 1979. He was an intern, and she was a supervising fellow, and they married in 1981, and had daughters Lauren and Rachel and son Ben. The couple settled in Voorhees in 1981, and Dr. Skalina worked in the delivery room and neonatal intensive care unit at Cooper until 1986.

They moved to Wallingford when he changed jobs, and she practiced at Lankenau and Chester County Hospitals until retiring in 2009. They relocated to Springfield four years ago.

Dr. Skalina was a foodie, liked to cook, and often served up homemade meals at dinnertime. She made gourmet brownies, and the sour cream chocolate cake she whipped up one year for her husband’s birthday rivaled the best desserts his mother used to make.

She was organized and therefore in charge of the family activities. She helped with school projects, especially math homework; cheered at sports events; and supplied toilet paper and other essentials when her children went off to college.

She and her husband enjoyed the Pennsylvania Ballet, now the Philadelphia Ballet, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and she persuaded him to take up ballroom dancing to keep active after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2000. She doted on her grandchildren, had a delightful laugh, and showed her playful sense of humor often. “We liked to chuckle,” her husband said.

She navigated her failing health “with her signature grace,” DeMaio, her colleague, said.

“She wasn’t necessarily one for grand gestures,” said her daughter Lauren. “But all of her actions and interactions showed so much respect, caring, and thoughtfulness. … She was so many things to so many people.”

In addition to her husband and children, Dr. Skalina is survived by four grandchildren, a brother, and other relatives.

Services were Sunday, July 31.

Donations in her name may be made to the Parkinson’s Foundation, 200 SE First St., Suite 800, Miami, Fla. 33131.