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Mildred Lehman, launched campaign to reduce medical errors

MILDRED LEHMAN

Tucked amid the precise language of someone schooled in the subtleties of health care policy is a sentence that showed Mildred Lehman had a personal relationship to her topic when in 2004 she wrote the forward to “The Patient Safety Handbook.’’

Just after mentioning that 98,000 people die accidentally each year due to medical errors in hospitals, she added a sobering aside: “This aggrieved mother sees in the grim national numbers the sweet young face of a beautiful and talented daughter who left behind two children suddenly bereft.’’

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Her daughter Betsy Lehman, a health columnist for the Globe, died in 1994 after receiving an overdose of chemotherapy at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. With an equanimity that impressed all, Mrs. Lehman found ways great and small to contribute to the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction, launched nearly a decade after her daughter’s death.

Mrs. Lehman, who spent her youth in New England and returned after a career in writing and health care public affairs in Washington, D.C., died of complications of vascular dementia March 25 in Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale. She was 93 and had moved to Brookline more than a dozen years ago.

“Instead of becoming bitter, she found a couple of paths that helped her, and she made contributions,’’ said her daughter Ann Katz of Brookline. “One was being willing to speak publicly about the importance of patient safety and reduction of medical error.’’

Through the Betsy Lehman Center and its awards recognizing efforts by hospitals and health agencies to increase patient safety, Mrs. Lehman helped shield families from the sadness she knew firsthand.

“She was someone who was able to channel the grief she felt about her daughter’s loss into a very productive effort to prevent other families from having to go through the same sort of tragedy,’’ said John Auerbach, the state’s public health commissioner. “Mrs. Lehman was insightful, gracious, and thoughtful about the ways that government could play an active role in terms of trying to improve quality of care.’’

At the Globe, Betsy Lehman had used her columns to untangle the complexities of health care for readers.

“One point about Mildred I always respected was that she didn’t want the center to be a memorial to Betsy’s death,’’ said Nancy Ridley, former executive director of the Betsy Lehman Center. “She wanted it to be a celebration of her life, of her professional work to educate consumers.’’

Born Mildred Kharfen in Cherry Valley, Pa., Mrs. Lehman was 2 when her mother died just as her father was engineering a move to run a New Hampshire factory that made manicure instruments.

Until he fully settled in New England, she was raised by her maternal grandmother, a warm relationship Mrs. Lehman reprised in reverse decades later when her daughter died.

While still a child, she moved to Keene, N.H., where she won academic awards, was captain of a championship basketball team, and graduated from high school at 16 in 1934.

She attended a college in Pittsburgh before graduating from Simmons College in Boston, where she majored in English.

After a foray into graduate work that included studying in Vermont with the poet Robert Frost at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School, she worked at newspapers in New Jersey during World War II.

Through a cousin she met Milton Lehman, a war correspondent for the Stars and Stripes military newspaper.

“They connected very readily,’’ Katz said. “They had the same values and the same interests, and they were both writers and felt that was a wonderful way to live and work.’’

“It was a connection that lasted through the war because they both could write so beautifully about their thoughts and feelings,’’ she added. “Those letters, I think, substantially built their relationship.’’

They married in 1945 and became freelance writers for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post.

As they began having children, the Lehmans moved to the Washington, D.C., area. Both wrote speeches for government and elected officials, and she worked with him when he wrote “This High Man: The Life of Robert H. Goddard.’’

“ ‘My father is writing a book,’ I used to tell my friends proudly when I was a little girl,’’ Betsy Lehman wrote in the Globe in 1982, recalling those years. “Secretly I relished the fact that, while their fathers went to work in dark suits and shiny shoes, my father and mother padded downstairs every day in their sports clothes to ‘the office,’ to work on my father’s book.’’

A few years after finishing the book, Mr. Lehman died at 48 of a heart attack.

A widow at 47, Mrs. Lehman “put us all through school,’’ Katz said. “She worked extraordinarily hard, and mowed the lawn, and did the finances, and created a happy home environment, too.’’

Trading freelance writing for government work, Mrs. Lehman spent many years in the federal public affairs offices at the National Institute of Mental Health and the former Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration.

Mrs. Lehman had already begun spending as much of her free time as possible in the Boston area, where her daughters lived, before retiring in her mid-70s.

After Betsy died, Mrs. Lehman moved to the Coolidge Corner area of Brookline.

She taught memoir writing at a senior center and served on the community council of a mental health center, along with her work with the Betsy Lehman Center.

“She really felt her grief,’’ her daughter said, “but she was also able to find the energy to see herself as making a contribution to what she felt was a very important medical and social issue.’’

A service has been held for Mrs. Lehman, who in addition to her daughter, leaves a son, John of Middleton, Wis.; two sisters, Rosalind Alpert of Pittsburgh and Priscilla Ziv-El of Israel; a brother, Henry Kharfen of Newton; six grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

“She was an incredibly loving grandmother, but beyond that, she was an incredibly curious person,’’ said her granddaughter Amanda Katz, deputy editor of the Globe’s Ideas section. “She was an emotionally sophisticated person who thought a lot about her own feelings.’’

Mrs. Lehman, who “really saw herself right to the end as a writer and editor,’’ was at work on a memoir and had written nearly 400 pages, her granddaughter said.

“She was a tremendously reflective person,’’ Mrs. Lehman’s daughter said. “At the age of 90, she was still having insights about herself and facing things about herself and uncovering things in her emotional experience.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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