Diana J. Pillas

The longtime coordinator-counselor of Hopkins' Pediatric Epilepsy Center was known for her high level of care

February 10, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Diana J. Pillas, longtime coordinator-counselor of the Pediatric Epilepsy Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital who was known for the level of personal care and involvement she extended when working with patients and their families, died Saturday of breast cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care.

She was 69 and had lived in Lutherville.

Diana Jacqueline Pillas, the daughter of restaurateurs, was born in Baltimore and raised in the 5700 block of The Alameda.

After graduating from Eastern High School in 1958, she earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1962 from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Miss Pillas worked at Hopkins for several years before taking a job in 1965 at Stanford Medical Center.

"She took a vacation to visit a friend in California and didn't come back. She fell in love with Palo Alto and took a job at Stanford, where she worked until coming back to Hopkins in the early 1970s," said a brother, Jeffrey P. Pillas of Lutherville.

She returned to Hopkins in 1973, working at Kennedy Krieger Institute until 1985. She then went to work as coordinator-counselor of the Pediatric Epilepsy Center, where she became a familiar and welcoming presence.

"Knowledgeable, patient, thoughtful and kind, she helped families to understand the condition, to cope with adversity and to look toward a better future," said Dr. John M. Freeman, professor emeritus of pediatrics and neurology, and former director of the Pediatric Epilepsy Center.

"Diana had not only been a mainstay of the clinic, she had twice been president of the Epilepsy Association of Maryland, which later became the Abilities Network-Epilepsy Association of the Chesapeake," Dr. Freeman said.

"She also chaired the affiliate network of the Epilepsy Foundation of America and became vice president of the organization," he said. "She will be missed by the Hopkins staff and by the many, many patients whose lives she touched, and the many residents and epilepsy fellows she helped train."

Dr. Eileen P.G. "Patti" Vining, current director of the Pediatric Epilepsy Center, said that Miss Pillas was the "heart of the Pediatric Epilepsy Center at Johns Hopkins for nearly 40 years."

"She was the bright, energetic and reassuring voice that reached out to thousands of patients and their families as they navigated the medical and emotional impact of the diagnosis," Dr. Vining said. "She taught generations of us that children with epilepsy needed to live lives that were not defined by the disorder."

Dr. Vining said that Miss Pillas took calls from worried parents across the world.

"She was their resource, and not everyone had to come to Hopkins because she'd help them find local help. She also helped them formulate questions for their doctor, which helped empower them," Dr. Vining said. "In other words, she helped get them through it."

Dr. Freeman said that too often when patients and families talk with physicians, they are "too intimidated by the information and the setting to listen carefully," and that Miss Pillas' role was to assure them.

"She sat while we physicians explained the problem to the families, and then played the valuable role of sitting with them to repeat, translate and reassure patients of what had been said," Dr. Freeman said. "This valuable role is often missing in medicine, and we were very fortunate to have Diana to translate for us."

A mother of a child wrote from her home in London, recalling how Miss Pillas "would make the worst situation bright somehow. She had such a magical personality."

In an e-mail released by Hopkins this week, Jim Abrahams, a Hollywood producer, and his wife, Nancy Abrahams, recalled the role that the center and Miss Pillas performed in helping their son, Charlie, recover through use of the ketogenic diet.

"To travel across country with our critically ill child, and the overwhelming fear and apprehension, and then to be greeted, comforted and guided by the strength, warmth and compassion of Diana Pillas at Johns Hopkins Pediatric Epilepsy Center was a great blessing in our lives," the couple wrote. "We will always be grateful to Diana for being there for us - and the thousands like us."

Four years ago, Miss Pillas was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I remember her saying, 'I know I have a chronic disease, and I know how to treat it. I am going to keep going forward,' " recalled Dr. Vining. "It was a wonderful way to think of a bad diagnosis."

Four days before her death, Miss Pillas, who was still going to work, ran a conference at Hopkins, Dr. Vining said.

"The lady lived fully," she said.

Lee Kingham, director of the Abilities Network, where Miss Pillas had been active for 30 years, said, "She was the most compassionate, committed and incredible person I've ever known. She is so irreplaceable and in so many ways. She treated patients like they were members of her family. It's an unbelievable loss for so many people because she touched so many lives."

Miss Pillas enjoyed reading, entertaining family and friends with the traditional Greek dishes she prepared, traveling and vacationing in Ocean City.

She was also an avid Orioles fan - "win, lose or draw," her brother said.

"Her favorite holiday was Valentine's Day," he said. "She loved delivering candy hearts to all she knew."

Miss Pillas was an active member of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, 24 W. Preston St., where services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday.

Also surviving are another brother, Perry C. Pillas of Ocean City; and two nephews.

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