Obituary: Holly Davis / Devoted 'unmatched' time, energy to Children's Hospital patients

Aug. 22, 1945 - Sept. 6, 2013

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Every now and then, Rachel Berger still comes across a medical file from a family that Holly Davis had seen.

The notes from Dr. Davis are infallibly clear, handwritten, and so detailed that they might span 20 or 30 pages.

"The type of doctor that Holly was just doesn't exist anymore," said Dr. Berger, division chief for the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Of UPMC. "She would literally spend hours with families. The amount of time and energy she had for children, it was truly unmatched."

Dr. Davis, former medical director of the emergency department at Children's Hospital, died Friday morning of brain cancer. She was 68.

With Basil Zitelli, chief of the Paul C. Gaffney Diagnostic Referral Service at Children's Hospital, she authored the Atlas of Pediatrics Physical Diagnosis, one of the leading pediatric textbooks, now in its sixth printing.

Dr. Davis moved to Pittsburgh in the 1970s after graduating from college and medical school at Duke University.

She was born with a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, sometimes known as brittle-bone disease. Her broken right arm at birth was one of dozens of fractures she would suffer in her lifetime, said her longtime friend Bobbie Bollinger.

By age 10, after many hours in hospitals and doctors' offices, she had decided to become a doctor, said Ms. Bollinger.

By 1978, she was in charge of the emergency department at Children's Hospital, which was then a far cry from the pediatric emergency room in Lawrenceville today.

"It was just a few rooms at the back of Children's -- more like a walk-in clinic," said Mary Carrasco, now director of the Child's Place at Mercy. "She was the one who really led the charge to create an emergency department, develop it into a state-of-the art unit."

She designed the emergency department when Children's Hospital was in Oakland, said Dr. Zitelli, pushing for advances such as direct ambulance access to the ER and trauma units that could serve as operating rooms.

"We still have those concepts built into our ER in Lawrenceville," he said. "Her design of the ER really was the forerunner of what we have now."

Dr. Zitelli chose Dr. Davis to be his co-author for the textbook because of her diagnostic ability and extensive breadth of knowledge.

"She was truly an amazing woman," he said. "Her contributions were enormous."

She was also chosen by another Pittsburgh luminary, Fred Rogers, for a 1982 episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" about hospitals. She carefully used Velcro to affix Mr. Rogers to a "papoose board" used to help children stay still when they're getting sewn up with "extra-clean" thread.

"One nice thing about working in a place like this is knowing that we have a lot of different ways in which we can help children get better," she told Mr. Rogers.

Dr. Davis took a special interest in child abuse and after 21 years running the Children's emergency department, in 1999 she became co-director of the hospital's Child Advocacy Center to detect and treat child abuse.

She had an unmatched rapport with families with injured children -- a tough skill when it is often a family member suspected of abuse, said Dr. Berger, recalling that a medical history taken by Dr. Davis would go so far as to determine whether the pregnancy was planned.

"She spent so much time with them that the families could see that she wanted what was best for the children," she said. "She really worked as a social worker and a physician."

Her brittle-bone disease meant that Dr. Davis was on crutches for most of her career. Even days after a fracture, she would be spotted on her feet in the ER, said Don Middleton, vice president for residency education at UPMC St. Margaret and Dr. Davis' personal physician.

The disease forced her to retire in 2005, and she spent her retirement reading and doing crossword puzzles because of her physical limitations, said Ms. Bollinger. She was diagnosed about a year ago with breast cancer, which spread to her lung and her brain.

There will be no funeral or visitation, said Ms. Bollinger. Instead, her ashes will be scattered at Kiawah Island, S.C., a favorite vacation spot.

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