Obituary: Dawn A. Marcus / Area neurologist devoted to helping people manage pain

July 13, 1961 - Oct. 19, 2013

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Dawn A. Marcus dedicated her career as a neurologist to helping people in pain and writing extensively about it, and in recent years successfully enlisted Wheatie and Toby in that effort.

Wheatie and Toby are the lovable, soft-coated wheaten terriers Dr. Marcus put through training to become therapy dogs. She called herself their mere "chauffeur" as she took them to brighten days of patients and staff alike in hospitals, nursing homes, pain treatment centers and elsewhere. And she used them to help her research and write about how dogs could help humans who were suffering.

The ever-busy Dr. Marcus, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh's anesthesiology department and Animal Friends volunteer, rarely had a day in which she wasn't trying to help someone with her medical practice, teaching or writing, or simply through her or her dogs' friendly compassion.

The Franklin Park resident was 52 when she collapsed from a heart attack while bicycling in North Park this month with her husband, Dr. Richard J. Marcus. She died Saturday at UPMC Presbyterian.

She had previously been in robust health, said her husband. The couple were mountain biking together in the foothills of the Alps in France just a few weeks ago, with no signs of any problem. Dr. Marcus relished such challenges, said her husband.

"The bizarre thing is she had never been healthier or better fit," he said. "This is inexplicable ... like a thunderbolt."

Originally from Binghamton, N.Y., Dr. Marcus decided early to go into medicine, graduating from the medical school of the State University of New York at Syracuse in 1986. She headed to Pittsburgh afterward for her neurology residency at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and never left.

She focused on treatment of headaches, migraines and fibromyalgia at Pitt's Pain Evaluation and Treatment Institute while serving as a faculty member who inspired newer faculty and clinicians such as Cheryl Bernstein, a neurologist who arrived at Pitt 12 years ago.

Not only did Dr. Marcus seem to have "a computer in her head" that could cite any study, Dr. Bernstein said, but she dealt with pain-saddled patients in a way that belied the stereotype of rushed, indifferent doctors.

"She listened and gave them the time to tell their story, as though that was the only thing going on," Dr. Bernstein recalled. "She outli ned a really thorough plan for them ... and gave patients hope that they could manage their pain."

Dr. Marcus advocated and wrote extensively in scholarly papers and in books for lay audiences about an interdisciplinary approach to pain, combining healthy lifestyle choices with medication, relaxation techniques and other therapies. One of her books, "10 Simple Solutions to Migraine," won the 2007 Excellence in Media Award from the National Headache Foundation.

Long a dog-lover, it was around 2007 that Dr. Marcus decided to begin working with her older dog, Wheatie, in therapy. He got his certification through a training program with Animal Friends, and she later did the same with Toby.

The three of them would spend hundreds of hours a year visiting everyone from cancer patients to retired nuns and veterans.

"She understood the power of the human-animal bond, and she knew so well what her dogs were able to do," said Joanne Moore, director of outreach and community programming for Animal Friends. "They would visit room to room and the staff at the nursing stations, and Dawn would even talk about having pet therapy in the elevator, when people in varying states would just be so relieved to see them come on."

That therapy overlapped with Dr. Marcus' pain research. Dr. Bernstein encouraged her to bring the dogs to UPMC's pain center in Shadyside, now known as UPMC Pain Medicine at Centre Commons, where Dr. Marcus was able to verify that the terriers had a demonstrated effect on reducing pain and emotional distress even in the waiting room by their presence.

Dr. Marcus wrote multiple books about the positive influence on people's health of dogs, including "Fit as Fido: Follow Your Dog to Better Health," in addition to writing about it on a blog.

She would often be up at 5 or 6 a.m. and writing before he was even awake, said Richard Marcus, noting his wife rarely had a moment that wasn't spent in some constructive activity. She will be remembered by many for her compassion as well as that productivity, he said.

"A lot of her friends -- and she had hundreds -- said they knew how busy she was, but they all say they never felt rushed when talking with her," he said. "She always found the time."

Also surviving are her two sons, Steven, of Charlotte, N.C., and Brian, a medical student at Yale University.

Memorial contributions may be made to Canine Support Team's Pawz for Wounded Veterans, PO Box 891767, Temecula CA 92589.

Arrangements were by Simons Funeral Home Inc.


Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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