Myra Fox, who spent 44 years working on behalf of sick children at Children’s Hospital Boston and inspired the character known as the “play lady’’ in the children’s book “Curious George Goes to the Hospital,’’ never had any children of her own.
But she thought of every child she met at the hospital as hers, according to friends and colleagues.
“She was fabulous. She was giving and generous and she developed this profession,’’ said Susan Shaw, director of clinical operations at Children’s Hospital and a registered nurse who first met Ms. Fox in the 1970s.
A pioneer in the field of what later became known in hospitals around the country as Child Life Services, Ms. Fox, who lived in Newtonville, died at Brigham and Women’s Hospital on Thursday of leukemia and complications from a fall earlier this year. She was 75 and had retired from Children’s Hospital in 2008, following her cancer diagnosis.
The daughter of a Los Angeles doctor and a social worker, Ms. Fox began her work at a time when parents of ill children weren’t allowed to stay overnight in hospitals and the children were expected to be brave in the face of strangers, medical procedures, and sterile environments. In the 1960s, she wore a plaid jumper with toys filling its pockets and pushed a cart down hospital hallways, dispensing lemonade and playing happy music on hot days.
“We weren’t substitutes for their parents,’’ Ms. Fox said in a Children’s Hospital publication when she retired in 2008, “but we could comfort and support them through procedures and help with the separation from their homes and families. They are the most irresistible, adorable, and bravest kids in the world.’’
The work done by Ms. Fox inspired “Curious George’’ authors Margret and H.A. Rey to create the “play lady’’ in their 1966 book telling the story of the little monkey’s experience after he swallows a puzzle piece and needs an operation. The authors toured Children’s Hospital and met Ms. Fox. In the story, George recuperates, eats some ice cream, and entertains children in the hospital playroom until the “play lady’’ announces it’s time for his nap.
“Myra Fox played an instrumental role in the lives of thousands of Children’s patients as the director of Child Life Services, a department she helped bring to prominence,’’ the hospital said in a statement. “She understood the importance organized activities played in helping children deal with their illnesses. Myra Fox positively impacted every patient and family she worked with during her 44-year career at Children’s Hospital Boston.’’
Raised in Los Angeles where she attended Beverly Hills High School and graduated from the Chadwick School in 1954, Ms. Fox took classes at the University of California Berkeley and studied child development at what was then called the School for Nursery Years in California, according to her brother, John O. Fox.
“She grew up in a family where both parents cared enormously about caring for people, and somehow that was in the bloodstream,’’ said Fox, a lawyer and visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley who writes about tax policy.
Ms. Fox was in her 20s when she moved to the Boston area, where her family had relatives. They were close siblings and she introduced her brother to the woman he would marry. He and his wife, Gretchen, were celebrating 47 years of marriage when Ms. Fox died, her brother said.
Ms. Fox never married.
“She was beautiful and attractive and it just never happened,’’ Fox said.
Ms. Fox found fulfillment in improving the lives of sick children.
“She just adored them and they adored her,’’ Fox said. “The children at Children’s Hospital became her children.’’
As director of Child Life Services she also was in charge of Volunteer Services, the Big Apple Circus Clown Care unit, art and music therapy programs, and the hospital tutoring program.
At Christmas, Ms. Fox, who was Jewish, worked through the holiday covering for Christian co-workers, her brother said.
Her early ideas were simple. She arranged for tables between beds so patients could play games together. When a hurricane was bearing down on Boston one year, she got flashlights for all the children to distract them from thunder and flickering lights. Later, she pushed for colorful playrooms where medical personnel could visit but no procedures would take place.
She advocated for child life specialists to work seamlessly with nurses.
“It was hard work in the ’60s,’’ she said in a Children’s Hospital interview. “But I believed in what I believed in and I knew that it would work. I knew it would connect.’’
Children’s Hospital now has more than 30 child life specialists. A specialist is posted in every child inpatient unit and in the Emergency Department and Radiology.
“She had a magical way about her for understanding children,’’ said her friend, Marva Serotkin, who is chief executive of The Boston Home, a long-term care facility on Dorchester Avenue in Boston. “She was just a giving, smart, very funny, caring person who was such an inspirational advocate for normalizing life for hospitalized kids, and for understanding children as children.’’
Four years ago, Ms. Fox had a poignant reunion with a former Children’s Hospital patient who spent months in the hospital in 1966. Brian Ridley of Taunton saw Ms. Fox featured on an NBC News segment and got in touch.
“I remember one Christmas when I was in a private room and was pretty sick,’’ Ridley wrote Ms. Fox in a letter that appeared in a hospital publication. “One day, I woke up and my room was all decorated for Christmas, with a tree and all, and you were there. . . . I’m sure there are a lot of young kids you’ve seen over the years that you have touched and I’m sure the play lady has put thousands of smiles on young faces.’’
In addition to her brother, an Amherst resident, Ms. Fox leaves a niece, a nephew, and a great-niece.
Services were private. Burial will be in Los Angeles. Children’s Hospital Boston plans to hold a celebration of her life in October.