Contrary to the image fueled by news coverage of helicopters racing to car crash scenes, most air ambulance trips involve bringing the critically ill from small hospitals to larger medical centers, but Dr. Suzanne Wedel, the longtime chief executive of Boston MedFlight, was quick to note that a common thread runs through all the calls.
“We are meeting these people on what is probably the worst day of their lives,” she told the Globe in 2010. “Nobody wakes up in the morning knowing that they are going to be one of our patients.”
Dr. Wedel, who was 60 when she died of ovarian cancer Thursday in Massachusetts General Hospital, spent more than a quarter century improving critical care transport by air or by land to Boston’s teaching hospitals.
And in fall 2012, when she was diagnosed with cancer after waking one morning not knowing that she, too, was about to become a patient, Dr. Wedel trained her administrative skills on a new area.
She launched the XOXOut Ovarian Cancer Fund, which has raised about $85,000 and takes its name from the “xoxo” she added while signing personal letters and e-mail. “It turns out that the technology to develop early screening tests is all there,” she told Boston Magazine in October about her efforts to increase awareness about ovarian cancer detection. “What isn’t there is how you put it together, because there’s just not a lot of funding for it.”
Meanwhile, the experience of suddenly being both a doctor and a patient added a new perspective to the empathy she already brought to her work.
“It makes you so much more aware of what patients experience,” Dr. Wedel, who lived in Marblehead, told Boston Magazine. “I think as care providers, we’re often so unaware of how terribly difficult it is for patients to do what we want them to and what we ask them to.”
Dr. Wedel “was always caring about everybody else,” said her husband, Dr. Alasdair Conn, who is chief emeritus of emergency medicine at Mass. General and who preceded Dr. Wedel as head of Boston MedFlight.
“Her mother was a nurse and it’s no accident that she went into the medical profession,” he said. “She always was a patient advocate. She always put the patient first, and she would roll over any obstacle to get the best care for her patients.”
Dr. Wedel was working in surgical critical care at what is now Boston Medical Center when her husband left Boston MedFlight to go to Mass. General.
At first, she was reluctant to be considered as his successor. “She said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll do it for a year while you conduct a search,’ ” he recalled.
That was in 1989 and she never left. During her leadership as CEO and medical director, Boston MedFlight grew from having about a dozen staff members to an organization with more than 100.
Dr. Wedel also was a founder of the North East Air Alliance, which fosters coordinated efforts among the region’s air ambulance organizations: Boston MedFlight, UMass Memorial LifeFlight, LIFE STAR in Hartford, LifeFlight of Maine, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team, and LifeNet of New York.
Beyond running a nonprofit that completes more than 3,100 transports annually, Dr. Wedel also worked to ensure cooperation among Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, MGH, and Tufts Medical Center.
‘She always was a patient advocate. She always put the patient first, and she would roll over any obstacle to get the best care for her patients.’Dr. Alasdair Conn, on his wife, Suzanne Wedel
“I fondly often say that we’re the only successful co-operative venture between them,” she once told Mary Blake of WBZ News Radio.
“Suzanne was the conscience who reminded us how unique and special this consortium was, and how we were much better working together than on our own,” said Ann Prestipino, who chairs Boston MedFlight’s board of trustees and is a senior vice president at Mass. General. “She was the glue that really made sure that stayed together.”
Born in North Newton, Kan., 30 miles north of Wichita, Suzanne Kaye Wedel was the oldest of three children. Her father, Arnold Wedel, taught mathematics at Bethel College in North Newton. Her mother, the former Delores Lehman, was a nurse.
Influenced by her mother, who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era, Dr. Wedel “was always an advocate for the disenfranchised,” her husband said.
She graduated from Bethel College, then went to the School of Medicine at Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo., where she also had a residency in internal medicine.
Dr. Wedel then went to Baltimore for more training at the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services, where she met Conn. “I say we met over a gunshot to the chest,” he recalled, “and she says we met in a piano bar with a lot of friends.”
In the version that didn’t involve a critically wounded patient, Dr. Wedel stepped to the piano in the bar and played the opening of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
At the encouragement of their mutual friends, she played the opening of the second movement, too. Then Conn challenged her to play the beginning of the more challenging third movement as well. She did that just as well.
In their Marblehead home, the family kept a harpsichord, organ, and piano, and “until the very end she would Skype or FaceTime her parents and play, and they would sing songs together,” her husband said.
After marrying in 1985, Dr. Wedel and Conn moved to Boston, where she worked in surgical critical care until taking over Boston MedFlight in 1989.
“She used to talk all the time about how our goal was to create a health care organization that you would want to care for your mother,” said Maura Hughes, Boston MedFlight’s chief financial officer and now the interim CEO. “She would do anything for anybody, and I really mean that in the truest sense of the word.”
A service will be announced for Dr. Wedel, who in addition to her husband and her parents, of North Newton, Kan., leaves three children, Kathryn Conn, Christopher Conn, and Alexander Conn, who are all graduate or undergraduate students; her sister, Janine of Washington, D.C.; and her brother, Edward of Jefferson City, Mo.
Dr. Wedel “was the driving force behind Boston MedFlight and behind critical care transport in this region, by air and by ground,” said Dr. David Brown, chairman of emergency medicine at Mass. General, “and she was incredibly generous and kind.”
He added that she was “a decisive leader with an incredibly keen intellect and also had a tremendous sense of humor. She managed to keep a positive attitude even under incredibly trying situations.”
That extended from the patients who were under the care of Boston MedFlight to the more than 100 employees she supervised to colleagues who became her closest friends.
“She had a compassion and a thoughtfulness and an ability to be there with you and for you, both in good times and bad,” Prestipino said. “She was just a fantastic and lovely human being.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.