Dr. Nicholas J. Fortuin dies at 69

Johns Hopkins cardiologist did research involving the distribution of blood flow in heart muscle and in cardiac ultrasound

April 12, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Dr. Nicholas J. Fortuin, a Johns Hopkins Hospital cardiologist who did early research in cardiac ultrasound and was recalled as a gifted teacher, died Sunday near his home in the Caves Valley section of Baltimore County. Family members said he had been bicycling. He was 69.

"For generations of cardiology trainees at Hopkins, he came to epitomize clinical judgment and skill, and he brought to their education a healthy skepticism of new fads in a technology-prone specialty," said a close friend, Dr. Thomas Traill, a Hopkins cardiologist. "He was a wonderful source of second opinions, from all up and down the East Coast. He had a great reputation and a broad referral base. Doctors sought his advice."

Born in Paterson, N.J., and raised in Ridgewood, he earned an English literature degree at Columbia University and traveled to England to study Shakespeare. Friends said he often "leavened his remarks" with quotes from the Bard.

The son of a neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Fortuin was proud of his Dutch and Danish ancestry.

He earned a degree at the Cornell University School of Medicine and interned at Johns Hopkins Hospital, beginning in 1965.

He studied cardiovascular medicine under Dr. Richard Ross and did research involving new concepts in the distribution of blood flow in the heart muscle.

"He was a superb, old-school, critical-care cardiologist," said Dr. Ross, the former dean of the Hopkins School of Medicine. "He was knowledgeable in all things pertaining to the heart. He was an extremely astute diagnostician."

Dr. Myron Weisfeldt, a fellow Hopkins cardiologist, said Monday, "The department of medicine, the division of cardiology and Johns Hopkins Medicine have lost one of [their] most committed teachers, physicians and academic leaders. There are generations of cardiology fellows whose echocardiography skills are entirely the product of [Dr. Fortuin's] instruction, mentoring and cajoling."

Dr. Weisfeldt said that "his patients, too, knew his worth, providing him with one of the most prestigious honors possible: a chair endowed in his name, to be occupied by an equally skilled and committed physician and teacher."

He was drafted into the U.S. Public Health Service and assigned to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, where he researched the effects of air pollution on the heart. While there, he employed the then-new technique of ultrasound to study heart function. He worked with Dr. Ernest Craige, a pioneer in heart sounds.

In 1971, Dr. Fortuin returned to Hopkins, where he developed the first laboratory of echocardiography at Johns Hopkins and promoted the use of this technique in clinical cardiology.

He also established a private practice in Baltimore and rose through the ranks at the Hopkins School of Medicine. He was named professor of medicine in 1986, an unusual accomplishment for someone not in a full-time academic position.

"He was the most remarkable clinician we had at Hopkins," said a friend, Dr. William Schlott, a Hopkins internist. "He had terrific judgment. He didn't rely on the lab and tests. His acumen in clinical cardiology was remarkable."

Friends said that a high point of his career came in 2008, when his patients gave nearly $2.5 million to the professorship named in Dr. Fortuin's honor.

"Nick taught me many things, but most of all, that the patient always comes first. Most striking to me about his remarkable career was how generous he was with his time, both for patients and colleagues," said Dr. Hugh Calkins, a Hopkins cardiologist who holds the chair named in Dr. Fortuin's honor.

Nearly 15 years ago, a Baltimore priest, Ronald P. Pytel, who was Dr. Fortuin's patient, was perceived as being the beneficiary of a miracle through the intercession of Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who had been recently beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Fortuin was called to Rome at her canonization and dined with Pope John Paul II.

Friends said Dr. Fortuin remained a Shakespeare lover and attended a performance of "Richard II" in Washington the night before he died.

A memorial service will be held at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Cathedral and Read streets, where he was a member.

Survivors include his wife of nearly 48 years, the former Diane Hay; three daughters, Elizabeth Steffenson of Rancho Sante Fe, Calif., and Julie Savage and Karen Corsi, both of Denver; a brother, Dr. Floyd Fortuin of Oakland, Calif.; a sister, Kathy Reis of New York City; and eight grandsons.


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