Obituary for Brig. Gen. Roach’s aunt, The Times-Picayune, 5/16/2014
Rowena Spencer, MD (Medicine 1947; House Staff, Surgery; Former member, Orthopaedics Advisory Board)
Dr. Rowena Spencer, a pioneering pediatric surgeon who worked tirelessly to get the best possible treatment for the patients she called her babies, died Tuesday (May 13) at Mount Vernon Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Alexandria, Va. She was 91.
A Shreveport native who moved to New Orleans in 1949, Dr. Spencer left the city just ahead of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, said Brig. Gen. Lewis Spencer Roach, a nephew.
Throughout her surgical career, which lasted until her retirement in 1984, Dr. Spencer set a series of precedents. She was the first woman surgeon in Louisiana, the first pediatric surgeon of either sex in the state and the first female surgical intern at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. She taught at LSU School of Medicine, where she was the first woman in the department of surgery to hold a full-time faculty appointment.
Dr. Spencer developed an interest in conjoined twins, who are joined early in pregnancy before structures such as the neural tube have developed to the extent where skin closes over them. She separated four sets of conjoined twins and wrote a medical textbook on the subject after retiring in 1984 from her surgical practice.
"She was driven by a genuine desire to help children," said Dr. Charles Hill, who was Dr. Spencer's partner in her New Orleans practice. "She had an unwavering strive for perfection, not only in that but in everything she did."
"She was dedicated to her babies to the nth degree," Roach said. "She would fight for them like a tigress."
Her guiding philosophy was simple. "Babies are people. They need more than bottles and a diaper," Dr. Spencer said in an interview with Charles A. Fishkin, a friend and former patient of Dr. Spencer's whose father had been one of her colleagues.
She was devoted to them. When her young patients were going to get X-rays, Dr. Spencer brought them into the room, Fishkin said, and she carried them into the operating room and, after surgery, into the recovery room as she talked or sang to them. Dr. Spencer once went eight years without taking a vacation, Fishkin said, and she often slept at the hospital so she could monitor her young patients after surgery. "If it's my baby and I am responsible for it, I am going to be there," she told Fishkin. ""You can't just turn around and walk off."
This commitment was lifelong. "I have loved babies since the day I was born," Dr. Spencer told Fishkin. "My purpose wasn't to be a pioneer. I just wanted to hold those babies." This was evident during her childhood in Catahoula Parish, where her father, Dr. Lewis Cass Spencer, was an orthopedic surgeon and, later, a public-health official. When she was growing up near the banks of the Little River, "she was a babysitter of anyone she could lay hands on," Roach said. "When there was a major flood when she was in high school, she took care of a baby that was malnourished in a shelter and took it home." The two were reunited 60 years later, Roach said.
Dr. Spencer graduated from LSU and earned a medical degree at Johns Hopkins, where she was one of four women in her graduating class. She underwent further training in surgery and pediatrics at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where she worked with Dr. C. Everett Koop, who helped develop pediatric surgery as a medical subspecialty. Koop went on to become surgeon general during the Reagan administration.
In New Orleans, Dr. Spencer trained at Tulane University and Charity Hospital. She raised eyebrows in the 1950s, when segregation was still the rule, because she insisted that all her patients at Charity be treated in the same ward, regardless of their race, Fishkin said. But she stood firm. "Babies are babies," she told Fishkin. "If they need help, they need help."
Once Dr. Spencer decided on a course of treatment, she never second-guessed herself, Hill said. "There was no hesitation at all." Because of her passion for her calling and her determination to do the right thing for her little patients, she frequently ran afoul of the predominantly male medical establishment, Roach said, because she never hesitated to speak out. As a result, he said, she told him, "I suffered the tortures of the damned."
Although Dr. Spencer was devoted to children, she never had any of her own. "She didn't have the opportunity," Roach said. She was profiled in "Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times," which was published in 2009.
Survivors include two sisters, Sarah Spencer of Monroe and Linda Altenberg of New Orleans, and seven nieces and nephews. Burial will be private. A memorial service in New Orleans will be held at a later date.