Shirley F. Sohmer

Johns Hopkins nurse and administrator helped develop department of neurology and nursing service

March 21, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Shirley F. Sohmer, who began her career as a staff nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, helped develop the department of neurology and nursing service, and later became a senior nursing administrator, died March 13 of cardiac failure at Seasons Hospice at Northwest Hospital Center.

Mrs. Sohmer, who was a resident of Emeritus at Pikesville, an assisted-living facility, was 79.

Shirley Friedman was born in Baltimore and raised on Bryant Avenue, the daughter of Russian immigrant parents - her father was a tailor and her mother was a homemaker.

After graduating from Western High School in 1947, she earned a nursing degree in 1950 from the Sinai Hospital School of Nursing.

Mrs. Sohmer worked briefly at the old Sinai Hospital on East Monument Street in East Baltimore before marrying in 1953, when she left the profession to raise her two children.

After her children went to school, she took a refresher course and went to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1962 as a staff nurse. She then was promoted to head nurse of a unit, and then manager of two inpatient units.

In 1969, when the hospital established its department of neurology, Mrs. Sohmer was recruited by Dr. Guy M. McKhann, who founded and served as the department's first director, to develop an appropriate nursing staff.

"It effectively came into being on July 1, 1969, when we occupied eight beds on Brady 2. It was a horrible facility - no air conditioning, terrible bathrooms, all two of them - and very crowded," wrote Dr. McKhann in his eulogy for Mrs. Sohmer.

"What made it all work was Shirley Sohmer, who had returned to nursing after time off to raise her two children," he wrote.

"At the start, Shirley came to me, who had just arrived to be the first director of neurology, to tell me she knew nothing about the brain. I told her not to worry; I would take care of the brain stuff as long as she took care of everything else. And she did!" Dr. McKhann wrote.

He praised Mrs. Sohmer for becoming a "superb neurological nurse" and for "developing an impressive team of nursing colleagues."

The neurology service migrated to several other locations within the hospital before arriving at its present home in the Meyer Building.

"She was first and foremost an inveterate nurse whose job was to develop a specialty nursing staff in neurology. And she had a great sense of the professional aspects of nursing," said Dr. Judith Rohde, who is current director of nursing of the Hopkins Hospital's neurosciences and psychiatry nursing departments, positions that Mrs. Sohmer held until 1990.

"I always call her the founder of neuro-nursing here. She gave the department its foundation," said Dr. Rohde.

"She was very down to earth and personable. She had a warm and welcoming manner with the patients and worked with the very ill with warmth and empathy," she said.

In his eulogy, Dr. McKhann wrote that from "Day 1, Shirley set the standard for all of us in her dedication to patients, her nurses, and her doctors."

Dr. Gary W. Goldstein, president and CEO of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said that "Shirley brought a sense of maturity to a bunch of immature people."

Dr. McKhann quipped, "I don't know if he [Dr. Goldstein] was referring to the resident group or the entire neurology faculty; probably the latter."

When it came to Dr. McKhann's attention that an intern in medicine was giving "nurses grief over patient issues," he summoned the young man to his office.

"I didn't want to make this something that would affect this young man's career, but he did need to shape up," he wrote. "I told him, 'Young man, we have the best nursing service in the hospital. Good nurses are hard to find and to keep. Medical interns like you are a dime a dozen.' Later in his career, the recipient of this advice thanked me."

Dr. Paul R. McHugh was director of the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Hopkins School of Medicine from 1975 to 2001, and psychiatrist-in-chief at the hospital.

"Shirley was marvelous and the essence of what you want in a head nurse," said Dr. McHugh. "She was supremely intelligent and deeply caring. When I was here, she taught young women in psychology and made it wonderful. She always knew what the nurses were trying to do."

He added : "I just loved her. I learned a lot from her every day. She had warmth and intelligence and understood a troublesome administrator like me. We really had a wonderful partnership."

Mrs. Sohmer's role was eventually expanded and included the departments of neurosurgery and then psychiatry.

She spent the last seven years of her career until retiring in 1997 as a close adviser to Ronald R. Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System.

She was considered a legendary figure at Hopkins, and an annual nursing award was named in Mrs. Sohmer's honor.

"Hopkins is a great place," Dr. McKhann wrote. "Some of its leaders have portraits and plaques scattered around. But what really made us great are the Shirley Sohmers of our world. Her boys in the neurology department all thank her for what she did."

Mrs. Sohmer, who lived on Smith Avenue in Pikesville for years, was a dog lover, and enjoyed boating, camping and going to the beach.

Services were held March 14.

Surviving are a son, Michael J. Sohmer of San Diego; a daughter, Dr. Barbara H. Sohmer of Bryn Mawr, Pa.; three brothers, Maish Friedman of Ocean City, Kenneth Friedman of Baltimore and Irving Friedman of Scottsdale, Ariz.; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson. Her marriage ended in divorce.

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