Dr. Katherine H. Borkovich, Hopkins internist

June 09, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Dr. Katherine H. Borkovich, an internist, cardiologist and teacher associated with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for more than half a century, died of an apparent heart attack Saturday at her home on Lakehurst Drive. She was 78.

The daughter of a Yugoslav-born Pennsylvania steel mill worker, she took up a career that was particularly difficult for a woman to pursue years ago.

In 1972, she became the first woman elected president of the Baltimore City Medical Society (founded in 1788). She was also president of the Maryland Society of Internal Medicine in 1964, and last June was inducted into the Johns Hopkins Women's Medical Alumnae Association of Fame.

"She commanded great patient loyalty, was a good teacher and an old-style clinician," said Dr. Richard Ross, dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins medical school and longtime friend of Dr. Borkovich. "She was a very assertive and positive person who had to fight her way up in a man's world. I admired her for what she accomplished."

Dr. Borkovich -- Katie to her colleagues -- was born and reared in the small western Pennsylvania town of Monaca, where she developed an affection for the outdoors.

"I learned to love the forests, mountains and streams, but because I was a woman, I didn't have a chance to be a ranger," she told The Evening Sun in 1972.

She was also exposed there to the world of medicine because of illnesses affecting most of her family, "spending most of my teen-age days in and out of the hospital, visiting," she recalled.

"It was then I became engrossed with the whole aspect of the hospital and my high school principal urged me to go into medicine."

She earned her bachelor's degree from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., in 1935, and was a 1939 graduate of the Hopkins medical school.

She taught pulmonary hypertension and electrocardiology, and physical diagnosis to female medical students in the days when medical students were segregated by the sexes for such instruction.

Dr. Borkovich retired from the medical school in 1991, but maintained a private practice of internal medicine and cardiology near the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Dr. Patti Vining, a pediatric neurologist, said, "She came out of an era when it was difficult for women to make it in medicine. She taught physical diagnosis to the women students and had a major impact on every woman who went to this medical school.

"You were fortunate to have her in your corner if you were her patient because she'd stop at nothing in order to help you."

"This institution was her family and club," Dr. Ross said. "She considered Hopkins Hospital her family. She would be the first person to arrive at the doctor's dining room and was the last to leave." Dr. Borkovich was known to work until well past midnight.

For relaxation, she turned to that other great love of her life -- the outdoors, and particularly the Adirondacks, where she kept a cabin at Big Moose Lake in New York state.

But even there, her medical expertise was called on once when a dinner guest collapsed at the table. According to Dr. Vining, Dr. Borkovich opened the guest's chest with a steak knife to massage the heart until help arrived. The guest survived.

"She had courage, determination and total compassion for people," Dr. Vining said.

Dr. Borkovich also enjoyed photography and travel, and during a 1972 voyage was shipwrecked when the Norwegian cruise vessel Lindblad Explorer went aground in the Antarctic.

After the ship's captain ordered the vessel abandoned, she along with 93 other passengers spent five hours in lifeboats, enduring subzero temperatures and a 70 mph wind before being rescued by a Chilean naval vessel.

"I didn't think we were going to make it," she recalled in a 1979 interview in The Sun. "The waves were pounding; we were covered with snow and couldn't see.

"Before the trip, I had made a codicil to my will, changing the funeral home where I wanted my body to be prepared and sent to Pennsylvania. I thought, 'My God, what a waste of time that was. I'm going to the bottom of this sea.'

"And I also thought that if I survived, I wasn't going to clear the tables in the doctors' dining room at the hospital any more."

Her spirit of adventure undaunted, Dr. Borkovich returned to the Antarctic and -- among other unusual trips -- in 1976 traveled to Greenland where she spent three weeks dogsledding with Eskimos.

A Mass of Christian burial was to be offered at 10 a.m. today at SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church, Charles and 29th streets, Baltimore.

She is survived by a cousin, Dr. George W. Borkovich of Baltimore.

Memorial donations may be made to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, The Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine, 1620 McElderry St., Room 1109, Baltimore 21205.

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