A Tribute to Two Colleagues

In November of 2002, our glaucoma family lost two very special people: Dr. Ruthanne B. Simmons and Dr. David A. Echelman. Ironically, they both performed their glaucoma fellowships at Duke University in the early 1990s and had their practices in the Boston area. More importantly, they were both wonderful people, who were devoted to their families and dedicated to their patients, who they cared for with skill and compassion. Words can never adequately express the profound sorrow we feel for such great loss, but it seems appropriate to remember them in this journal, which focuses on the scientific discipline to which they dedicated their professional lives.

Ruthanne Bush Simmons, M.D.
Jan. 29, 1959 – Nov. 8, 2002

Ruthanne is the daughter of our highly respected colleague, Dr Richard J. Simmons, who is the honoree this year of the American Glaucoma Society. Undoubtedly, the honor that Dick Simmons cherishes the most, however, is that his daughter chose to follow in his footsteps and became his partner and a star in her own right.

After growing up in Newton, MA and attending Newton High School, where she and her future husband first met, Ruthanne attended Smith College and then transferred to Wesleyan University, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was awarded the Thorndike Prize for excellence in Psychology. Having decided to pursue a career in medicine, she began following her father’s pathway by attending Harvard Medical School, from which he had graduated 30 years before.

Following medical school, Ruthanne completed her internship training at Framingham Union Hospital and then moved with her husband, neuropsychologist Dr. Robert A Stern, to North Carolina for her ophthalmology residency at Duke University Medical Center. Her performance as a resident was exemplary, and both Dr David L. Epstein and I were thrilled when she chose to stay with us for her glaucoma fellowship in 1992. In addition to her clinical excellence and remarkable surgical skills, she also demonstrated her talents in research, with six publications, primarily on techniques of cyclophotocoagulation.

It was not enough to simply be one of the best residents and fellows that we had ever had at Duke. Ruthanne also gave birth to their two children, Nicholas and Laura, during their five years in North Carolina. I remember returning from a trip one Sunday afternoon and finding a manuscript on my desk, with a note which read, “I went into labor this weekend, so since I had nothing else to do, I finished this paper.” That was the stuff of which she was made.

With the completion of her formal training, Ruthanne returned to the Boston area to join her father in the Simmons Eye Associates of Boston. In 1996, the two Simmons joined the prestigious group practice, Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston. Shortly thereafter, Ruthanne was diagnosed with breast cancer. She stopped practicing for one year, during which time she underwent several surgical procedures and six months of chemotherapy. She then returned to a busy, full-time practice, where she not only pursued her passion of surgery and patient care, but was also active as a teacher, researcher, author and lecturer.

One of my happiest memories is when Drs Richard and Ruthanne Simmons came to Connecticut in 2000 as the guest speakers of our Yale Glaucoma Symposium. The following spring, however, while on a vacation abroad with her family to celebrate five years of being cancer-free, Ruthanne developed pain and returned home prematurely to learn that her breast cancer had spread to her liver. She again left her practice to undergo aggressive chemotherapy, but after a remarkably courageous battle with the disease, Ruthanne died on November 8, 2002, at her home. She was 43.

In addition to her husband, Bob Stern, and their two children, Nick and Laura Simmons-Stern, Ruthanne leaves her parents, Dick and Anne Simmons, two sisters and a brother, and a large and adoring family and group of friends. She also leaves behind thousands of admiring patients and professional colleagues, who are deprived of all that she had yet to give, but who are so fortunate for having known her.

Dr. Ruthanne Simmons represented everything that is good in our profession. As a physician, she was learned, skillful and compassionate. With her father, she extended her outreach to patients world-wide by training foreign ophthalmologists through the Simmons International Glaucoma Fellowship. In this and so many other ways, her influence will continue to be felt and she will be remembered by us as a respected colleague and a beloved friend.

David Alan Echelman, M.D.
Oct. 6, 1957 –Nov. 27, 2002

On November 18, 2002, a memorial service was held for Dr. Ruthanne Simmons in Newton, MA. Sitting near the front of the packed church was Dr David A. Echelman, with his wife, Dr Fran Smith, and their three sons, Daniel, Matthew and Adam. It was typical of the kindness and thoughtfulness, which characterized David’s life, for him to show his respect and care in this way for a friend and colleague. Who could have believed that only nine days later he would die in a tragic auto accident.

David was born in New Orleans and grew up in Tampa, where he attended Jesuit High School. He then matriculated at Amherst College and earned a BA in biophysics, before being accepted into Johns Hopkins Medical School’s MD/PhD program, where he studied eye movements in cats. It was at Hopkins where he met Fran, who was working on her PhD in Biology, with a special emphasis on crystallography.

David was truly a Renaissance man. Not only did he posses an exceptional intellect, which was reflected in his many academic achievements, but he also had a breadth of extracurricular interests and skills, which included music, sports and literature. He was accomplished with the saxophone and clarinet, the latter of which he played in the band and orchestra in high school and at Amherst. He participated in many sports, including basketball, but his athletic passion was squash, which he played on the team at Hopkins and for which he won several trophies. He was an avid reader, with a broad interest that included fiction, science fiction and history.

After completing their work at Hopkins, David and Fran moved to North Carolina, where David performed his internship and residency at UNC. It was there that I met David, when he was presenting his research on image analysis at their resident’s day. His depth of knowledge on the subject, a reflection of his biophysics background and innate intellect, was remarkable, and we were delighted when he agreed to come to Duke for a two-year glaucoma fellowship in 1990.

David was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. We joked that I invited him to Duke, so he could have two years to explain to me what he was talking about in his resident’s day presentation. In the research year of his fellowship, he completed six projects, that all led to publications, including a detailed analysis of the variability of transscleral cyclophotocoagulation lesions with different fiberoptic probes, a study he performed with Drs Ruthanne Simmons and Robert Stern. During David’s fellowship, Dr. Simmons was in her second and third years of residency at Duke, and she replaced him in the fellowship, when David and his family moved to Worcester MA.

During their six years in North Carolina, Fran gave birth to their first two sons, Daniel and Matthew. Daniel showed early evidence of his parent’s superior intelligence, by learning to yell “Go Duke.” Their third son, Adam, was born in Massachusetts, where David began his glaucoma practice with Metro West Eye Physicians. He later joined the Fallon Clinic, where he worked for seven years, before joining Valley Eye Physicians approximately two years ago.

David was driving to work on the morning of November 27, 2002, during a New England snow storm, when his car skidded out of control and was hit on the driver’s side by an oncoming car. It was typical of David that he was trying to get to work to help others at the time of his death. Fran has received volumes of letters from his patients, who refer to him as their “doctor and friend.” One noted that Dr. Echelman diagnosed his brain tumor and probably saved his life. When their son, Adam, saw all the letters, he said “Now I understand why Daddy had to be away so much.”

On December 1, David’s funeral service was held at their temple, where Daniel’s bar mitzvah had been observed less than two months earlier. A beautiful eulogy was given by Dr. Richard Simmons, who had just done the same for his daughter, Ruthanne, two weeks before. In the midst of such sorrow, one could not help but take comfort in the strength and faith demonstrated by the Simmons-Stern and the Echelman-Smith families.

Those of us in the glaucoma family should be proud that our numbers include such outstanding people as Ruthanne Simmons and David Echelman, whose short lives were characterized by intelligence and skill, humility and compassion, a love of life and a dedication to making it a better place for all of us. The best we can do to honor them is to try to emulate the way they lived their lives.

M. Bruce Shields, MD
New Haven, CT