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Gary Cohen, MD Celebrates Wife's Memory with Philanthropy and Education

June 15, 2020
Charlene Cohen was always the consummate teacher. She educated students in Baltimore City schools to put her husband – Physician Titan of Care and former medical director of GBMC's Sandra and Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute, Gary Cohen, MD – through medical school. She taught their three children life lessons they would carry with them forever. And she taught Gary about love and kindness.

What started as a blind date in 1969 became 47 years of marriage filled with fun and memories.

"She was amazing, beautiful, vivacious," Dr. Cohen said. "When she walked into a room, she made everybody smile. And she made me smile."

Charlene died on October 17, 2018 at the age of 68 from a rare neurological disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), which prompted Dr. Cohen – always a generous philanthropist to his professional medical home at GBMC – to establish a lectureship in memory of his late wife.

The Charlene M. & Gary I. Cohen Healthcare Delivery & Innovations Lectureship will host speakers annually on or around the anniversary of Charlene's death to educate physicians and the surrounding community on a wide range of healthcare topics through a public health lens.

"I envision the lecture could cover topics such as healthcare disparities, getting healthcare to the poor, disabled, elderly or minority groups," Dr. Cohen said. "Speakers might address health economics, demographics, innovations in medical care, new technologies, pharmaceutical development and cost, genomics, public health responses to pandemics and other interesting current issues in healthcare."

The first lecture, originally scheduled for this fall but postponed due to the pandemic, will feature Dr. Avindra Nath from the National Institutes of Health, the physician who consulted with the Cohens following Charlene's diagnosis. Dr. Cohen recognized there were many misconceptions and fear surrounding his wife's rare diagnosis. He felt it would be fitting start the lectureship by offering an expert to educate the medical community, and the public, about Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

"I want people to hear about the disease from an expert and, hopefully, better understand the idiosyncratic nature of the occurrence and the slow pace of research progress in discovering the etiology and treatment," Dr. Cohen said.

Of his wife, who was diagnosed in April 2018 and died only five months later, Dr. Cohen said, "She was perfectly healthy. She was beautiful, thin, athletic, she never took a pill in her life. She was the healthiest person you ever knew. She exercised and ate all the right things, and she just suddenly developed some neurologic symptoms. She noted some mild dizziness just as we were leaving Florida and it got progressively worse, and then some double vision. I had heard about CJD in medical school but had never seen a case because, of course, it wasn't in my area of expertise. But even when I talked to neurologists, many told me they hadn't seen a case in 10 years. That's how rare it is."

The lectureship is just one way Dr. Cohen has chosen to support GBMC in honor of his late wife. Dr. Cohen, who is still active in the GBMC oncology community, lecturing as part of continuing medical education and participating in Tuesday morning oncology rounds when he is in town, is also a member of the Gilchrist Board of Directors. He helped to establish Gilchrist in 1995, when it was inaugurated by GBMC. It was seen, at the time, as a necessary extension of GBMC's burgeoning oncology program, and since, has expanded to include many more services extending far beyond just cancer. Dr. Cohen presented Gilchrist with a gift in honor of Charlene as well.

He also established the Gary I. & Charlene M. Cohen Cancer Director's Fund, which will be used to support focused projects in any area of GBMC cancer-related services. A selection committee, which will include Herman and Walter Samuelson Medical Director of the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute at GBMC, Paul Celano, MD, FACP, FASCO and Dr. Cohen among others, will review proposals made by oncology employees who wish to conduct a brief, limited project to evaluate or improve care within the oncology department. The Director's Fund will support these efforts.

These programs honor a woman who businessman, philanthropist, film maker and founder of the Sidney Kimmel Foundation, Sidney Kimmel, called "the life of the party" as well as a life-long educator, artist, amazing mom and tirelessly loving grandmother to her seven grandchildren.

"She was truly the wind beneath my wings," Dr. Cohen recalled with great emotion. "And she will be sorely missed by family, friends and all those who she touched during her (too brief) life."
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