A multi-dimensional life

Dr. Mary Retzer ’65 started the hospice movement in Sacramento, Calif., cared for patients in a private hematology/oncology practice, served on the board of the American Cancer Society, and guided licensing and certification for the California Department of Health Services.

But she also took a few years away from her professional life to raise her daughter Kate, lead writing workshops, and guide discussions of great books. As a retiree in Sea Ranch, Calif., she studies astronomy, writes, hikes, travels, and volunteers for a number of community organizations.

Retzer lived the multifaceted principles of the Dimensions program long before it was a twinkle in the eye of Dr. Larry Dorr ’63. Now, she gives back to Cornell in many ways, including teaching a course next year on medical humanities and literature. She also recently joined the Cornell Board of Trustees.

“It was a natural affinity for me, as I thought back on medical school and my observations in practice about how important it was to mature in other ways than just sciences,” she said.

At Cornell, Retzer—an Early, Iowa, native who always knew she wanted to be a physician—took only the minimum credits needed for a biology degree so she could take other classes, such as a sociology course called “The Nature of Prejudice.”

“It was a whole ‘different-speak’ for me,” she said.

But it would have been helpful to have a program like Dimensions, she said.

“I had been trained to treat disease, but I hadn’t been trained to treat patients very well,” she said. “I’ve read that medicine is not a science; medicine is a profession that uses science as a tool. I think Dimensions does that.”

She especially appreciates that Dimensions values the importance of empathy and communication. “Empathy is imagining yourself in the other person’s skin. To develop imagination is really an important part of being a good doctor. You’ve got to imagine being on the table or being the mother of a sick child,” she said. “You want students to have the highest level of empathy when they start medical school. There are a lot of challenges in medical school that will break it down.”

Though she lauds the teaching, mentoring, and advising she received more than 40 years ago at Cornell, she said today’s methods are superior. “I’m really impressed when I go back to see the way science courses are taught, with students learning more critical thinking and investigation rather than just regurgitating information at the end of a test,” she said.