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Obituaries

Lena Sorensen, 64; helped patients connect to doctors

LENA SORENSEN

LENA SORENSEN

Lena Sorensen dedicated her career to finding new and ingenious ways for patients to connect with doctors and nurses, and her own gift for connecting with others was as apparent in her personal life as it was in her professional work.

“Lena was a very charismatic person,” said her partner, Alice Friedman. “A lot of people told her their troubles, and she was always enormously supportive.”

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Putting to use multiple ­degrees in nursing and psychology, Dr. Sorenson worked in the fields of teaching, health care, and the global expansion of information technology.

For the past four years she was associate professor of medical informatics in the School of Nursing at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute of Health Professions, where she helped develop a curriculum in informatics, an academic field that combines technology with social sciences.

Dr. Sorenson, who last year was elected to chair the school’s faculty senate, died of heart failure Aug. 17 in her Cambridge home.

She was 64.

Friedman said Dr. Sorensen, who was a nurse, a teacher, and a researcher, had been concerned about how “computers would affect the patients’ experience, and the experience of nurses” from the beginning of the digital era.

“What Lena was interested in was the breadth and depth of caring, all the way from the literal, as in ‘take two aspirin,’ to the existential human experience of one person relating to another,” Friedman said.

Dr. Sorensen graduated in 1970 from Keuka College in Keuka Park, N.Y., with a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

She also received a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing from Boston University in 1975, and one in psychology from Hunter College in New York City in 1988.

She traveled extensively with Friedman. On a trip to the Midwest, Friedman said, the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright ignited Dr. Sorensen’s curiosity about how “buildings and environments affect the people who live and work in them.”

Dr. Sorensen then enrolled in the City University of New York Graduate Center, from which she graduated with a master’s in psychology in 1988 and a doctorate in environmental psychology in 1991.

Her dissertation was “Nursing and Computers: Caring in the Context of Information Technology.” During her career, she published many articles and often was asked to speak publicly about nursing and informatics.

Alex Johnson, provost and vice president of the MGH Institute of Health Professions, said in an e-mail that Dr. Sorensen was “devoted to connecting, whether it was patients with their caregivers, students with faculty, faculty with their leaders, or institutions with the community.”

Whether teaching in a physical classroom or online, he said, her “talent and skill came through loud and clear to her students,” who “enjoyed Lena’s enthusiasm, her substantive approach to problem-solving in clinical and leadership issues, and her personal connection with them.”

Born in Copenhagen, Dr. Sorensen was 6 when her family moved to Levittown, N.Y. As a girl she spoke only Danish at home.

“She was a Dane through and through,” Friedman said.

Dr. Sorensen was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1997, and studied for a year at the University of Tromso in Norway, where her Danish background was helpful, Friedman said.

“Norwegians and Danes don’t speak the same language, but they understand each other,” Friedman said. “She got particularly interested in language there, and in how language represents the human experience.”

When she left after her Fulbright year, Dr. Sorensen said in a farewell speech that growing up Danish-American put her “on the edge of intersecting cultures.” While a visitor in Tromso, she said, she was “not really an outsider, but somewhere on the border where cultures overlap.”

She predicted she would return to Tromso “professionally and personally,” and she did as a visiting professor from 1998 to 2002.

Besides teaching in Norway, Dr. Sorensen taught in nursing programs at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the University of Colorado.

She also was hired by New York University to create and direct a graduate program in nursing informatics.

Dr. Sorensen was a founding Fenway Health board member; it is a community health care center in Boston. Friedman said that as a member of the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion, Dr. Sorensen helped develop policies against sexual harassment.

Jeanette Ives Erickson, chief nurse and senior vice president for patient services at MGH, formerly was a student of Dr. Sorensen, whom she called “probably one of the first nurses engaged in informatics.”

“She was such a smart and engaging woman,” Ives Erickson said, noting that when she and Dr. Sorensen started a nursing-administration journal club, “people didn’t mind ­giving up their evenings, ­because Lena was going to be there. She was a really fun person to be around, and she was always doing something to help people.”

She added that Dr. Sorensen “wore this fabulous jewelry and this smile all the time. She was always talking about her travels. She had a wonderful life.”

Dr. Sorensen’s niece, Annelise Conway, of Falmouth Foreside, Maine, said her aunt created childhood memories for her through outings to Red Sox games and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, when Conway’s mother was ill.

“I think I was the only 12-year-old to see the Mapplethorpe exhibit,” she said of the photographer whose late-1980s work triggered political and legal debates about its content. “She was just this ever-present person, holding my hand in hospital rooms, or taking me on great adventures.”

Years later, Dr. Sorensen flew across the country to be by her side when Conway’s daughter was born.

“She was such a caregiver, she made every place she was cozy and warm and wonderful,” Conway said. “When you thought about how accomplished she was, you’d expect her to be lofty or impossible to reach, but she couldn’t have been farther from that.”

A service will be announced for Dr. Sorensen, who in addition to her partner leaves her mother, Else of Bellevue, Wash.; and three brothers, Karsten of Beverly, Hans-Henrik of Redmond, Wash., and Lars of Bellevue, Wash.

“She was so grounded and encouraging, sort of a failure-is-impossible person,” Friedman said. “She thought and believed that everyone could do better.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.

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