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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

Jane Koomar, a leader in sensory disorder

An occupational therapist and a leader in the field of treating sensory processing disorder, Jane Koomar cofounded Occupational Therapy Associates in Newton in 1983.

Now called OTA The Koomar Center, it is among the largest treatment centers for the disorder, which can result in unusual behavior when the brain won’t process information from the five senses in typical ways.

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In 2001, Dr. Koomar told the Globe that sensory processing disorder was “on the cusp of moving toward more common knowledge,” even though the diagnosis can be difficult for many to understand or accept.

“Relatives may say, ‘Why don’t you just control your child? Why don’t you just make them eat these things?’ And so it can set up dichotomies within families that are very challenging to deal with,” she said in “Making Sense of Sensory Integration,” an online transcript of a 1998 interview.

“The stress on the parent is incredible, particularly a parent who doesn’t have an understanding yet that this is something real for the child. Since the world is not a place that makes sense or because of his difficulties in processing sensory information, the world may be a frightening place.”

Dr. Koomar, who also had taught at Boston University and Tufts University, died Feb. 24 in her Bedford home of breast cancer. She was 58.

“I think Jane was born to help others,” said her best friend, Kathy Werst of Acton.

“She saw every day as a chance to know better, do better, and learn,” Werst said. “She was so accomplished and wise, but never made anyone feel less worthy. She could talk in front of hundreds of people, but her joy came while relaxing with a small group of good friends and family.”

The two friends vacationed and shopped together, carved pumpkins and led Easter egg hunts with their children, and communicated daily by phone, text, or e-mail.

Werst said she’ll miss her friend’s unconditional love, wisdom, and support.

Dr. Koomar brought out the best in people, said Robert Hebert, chief operating officer of OTA The Koomar Center.

“Jane’s humanity was off the charts,” he said. “She was the most caring and compassionate person I’ve met. She always went that extra mile for her employees and clients.”

Jane Audry Koomar was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and graduated in 1972 from Newark High School in Newark, Ohio.

In 1976, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from Ohio State University. She received a master’s in occupational therapy and a doctorate in developmental psychology, both from Boston University, in 1980 and 1996, respectively.

Dr. Koomar met John Laferriere in 1992 and they married the following year.

“She was, unbeknownst to me, best friends with one of my cousins,” he said. “When that cousin came from California to visit Jane in Massachusetts, Jane drove her over to my parents’ house in Acton. My mother invited her to stay for brunch, and we hit it off and started dating shortly thereafter.”

Laferriere said he was attracted to her intelligence, the ease with which they talked, and that, like him, she originally was from the Midwest. He said she was well-suited for occupational therapy because of her passion for helping others.

“She loved the challenge of figuring out what issues a given patient was facing, figuring out how to engage and connect with that patient, and figuring out what treatment modalities would be most effective,” he said. “She told her therapists and students the most important thing they needed to bring to each treatment session was unconditional love and acceptance of the patient.”

Teresa May-Benson, an occupational therapist and director of research and education for the Spiral Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of OTA The Koomar Center, was one of Dr. Koomar’s students at Boston University.

“Jane was always an amazingly giving person who did anything to help her friends and staff,” May-Benson said. “When I first came to Cambridge, I hadn’t yet rented a place and she offered me her own room until I could find one. As a clinician she had real empathy for both the children and their families.”

May-Benson and Hebert also said Dr. Koomar was a great supervisor.

“Every year she held a Valentine’s Day party for children of OTA staff,” said May-Benson, who added that “the hardest thing about working with Jane was keeping up with her. She was always thinking ahead.”

Although devoted to her work, Dr. Koomar “was always very supportive of me and was usually the one thinking of ways for us to connect despite our mutually busy schedules and careers,” Laferriere said. “When she occasionally traveled, she’d write notes for each of the kids, usually with a treat inside, for each day she was gone.”

Matt and Amy Laferriere said that through such gestures, their mother made them feel special and loved.

“The treats were always really fun,” Amy said. “It was so fun to open them up each day not knowing what they were going to be, and it made us not miss her so much when she was away.”

Matt added that “we always knew she loved us and was going to be there for us no matter what.”

They also liked the unusual birthday cakes their mother made, which “were amazing,” Amy said.

“No matter how ridiculous a cake we wanted,” Amy said, “she always figured out a way to make it work.”

In addition to her husband and children, Dr. Koomar leaves a brother, Paul of Bay Village, Ohio; a stepsister, Patricia Plummer of Wabash, Ind.; and two stepbrothers, Jim Hughes of Tinley Park, Ill., and John Hughes of Chicago.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. May 4 in First Parish in Bedford.

The night before Dr. Koomar died, Laferriere moved her hospital bed and his bed close, and he held her hand throughout the night.

Matt said that when he is older, he would like to help his mother’s Spiral Foundation or other charities.

“I think I want to do something like my Mom did,” said Amy, whose favorite class is one in which she works with special needs children.

Laurie D. Willis can be reached at lauriedwillis@hotmail.com.

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