Harvard-Radcliffe Class of '89

Duane Sewell


December 02, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Dr. Duane Anthony Sewell, a highly regarded head and neck surgeon and researcher who was also a member of the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, died Nov. 26 of gastric cancer at his Mount Washington home.

Dr. Sewell was 44.

“I can’t think of anybody who better exemplified what it means to be a physician than Duane Sewell. He combined excellent surgical and research skills, and making his patients extraordinarily comfortable,” said Dr. Kevin Cullen, director of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center.

“His illness came as a complete shock because he had been so vibrant, and it went too fast,” said Dr. Cullen. “He was part of a strong team, and Duane’s death is like losing your quarterback. He was a critical and revered member of the team, and now it’s going to be a real challenge for his patients, care and research.”

“Duane was a brilliant physician, and his brilliance I’d argue was defined by his incredible passion for his patients and a burning passion to investigate the unknown things we didn’t know about the biology of cancer and how it impacts us. He was excellent in both arenas,” said Dr. Mohan Suntha, associate director of the Greenebaum Cancer Center and professor of radiation oncology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“There has been an outpouring of emotional response to the impact of his death by his patients, colleagues and those he trained. … That will be his lasting legacy,” said Dr. Suntha. “We’ve lost a tremendous colleague and friend. Duane’s death has moved us all in a unique way. He was a man who was blessed with both intellect and curiosity.”

Dr. Sewell, whose father, Dr. Trevor E. Sewell, was a psychologist and former dean of Temple University’s School of Education, and whose mother, Fay Barbara Sewell, was professor of mathematics at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania, was born in Milwaukee. He was 7 when he moved with his family to Abington, Pa.

After graduating from Abington High School in 1985, Dr. Sewell earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1989 from Harvard University.

He briefly contemplated a legal career but decided to pursue medicine.

“I think Duane was driven by his desire to help people, especially underprivileged people. That was a big factor in his choosing medicine, plus he was good at science,” said his wife of 15 years, Dr. Catherine Sewell, a gynecologist and faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, whom he met when both were students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

After graduating from medical school in 1994, Dr. Sewell completed a surgical internship at Union Memorial Hospital in 1995. He was a postdoctoral fellow in the department of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1995 to 1997.

He completed a residency in 2000 in the department of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Hospital and from 2000 to 2001 was a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania.

From 2001 to 2002, he was a head and neck surgery fellow in the department of otolaryngology at Penn.

Before coming to the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 2007, Dr. Sewell was an assistant professor in the department of otorhinolaryngology at the University of Pennsylvania, and was also a staff surgeon at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center.

“He was extremely soft-spoken and humble,” said Dr. Cullen. “We all respected his thinking and his final word enormously. He was marvelous at unraveling extraordinarily difficult situations.”

“Duane was able to balance his career and at the same time be an incredible family man. I’m willing to bet that his wife and children were the most important thing in his life, and he made his patients feel the same way,” said Dr. Suntha.

“From the moment they were diagnosed with cancer, he understood the challenges of the diagnosis and wanted to make sure that the patient and their family were taken care of,” he said.

“He was wonderful at calming them, and the bitter irony was that he had to deal with his own at the end of his life,” said Dr. Cullen.

In an email Monday to staff members of the Greenebaum Cancer Center, Dr. Cullen wrote: “Duane’s compassionate yet commanding demeanor instantly (and rightly) put all of his patients at ease, be they an ambassador with all possible privilege or a homeless person clinging to any hope. He saw them as equals and provided them the best care possible.”

At the end of his life, Dr. Sewell, while technically on leave, maintained an interest in his work and research, said his wife.

He wrote many journal articles and abstracts. He also was section editor of “Comprehensive Overview of Otolaryngology,” published in 2003, and was the author of several book chapters.

His professional memberships included the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American Association of Cancer Research, American Head and Neck Society and the American Association of Immunologists.

A physically active person, Dr. Sewell was training for a triathlon when his cancer was diagnosed.

“He enjoyed camping, and reading African-American and sports history,” his wife said.

He was an avid Eagles and Phillies fan.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Dec. 18 at the University of Maryland’s Westminster Hall, 519 W. Fayette St.

In addition to his wife and his parents, Dr. Sewell is survived by twin sons, Sean T. Sewell and Joshua E. Sewell, 10, both students at Friends School; a sister, Andrea Denise Sewell of Abington; and numerous cousins.

I was introduced to Duane Sewell by a mutual friend our junior year. We would occasionally see each other in the Lowell House dining hall, but our schedules and lives didn’t overlap for the most part.

Sometime in our senior year, we bumped into each other during dinner at Lowell. And that time we spoke. I suspect it was Duane who mentioned our friend’s name. I assumed Duane had forgotten meeting me; in fact, he hadn’t. I am so grateful for that.

I would look for Duane in the dining hall after that. I always remember thinking, “What a nice guy!” in a way that I rarely applied to other people. And nice he was. He was soft-spoken with a shy smile that I always tried my hardest to bring out. I can’t tell you if I was successful, but he sure made me smile.

I remember the last time Duane and I really talked as students, which was toward the end of our senior year. We were at a party when I spotted him. He felt like a life raft in a sea of unknown faces. I couldn’t tell you exactly what we spoke about, but I can tell you how I felt: lucky. He was so calm and centered; he seemed so on top of everything in his usual quiet way. These are not words I would have used to describe how I felt toward the end of our last year in college. I had no job to go to, no graduate school awaiting me and I was terrified. I felt calmer in his presence.

As is the case with time and distance, I didn’t think about Duane much...until our 5th year reunion. Because of a work meeting, I just happened to be in Cambridge during our reunion, so I went to a cocktail event. And I’m so thrilled I did, because one of the first people I saw was Duane. He hadn’t changed one bit. The same shy smile, the same presence. He absolutely made my day.

As our various reunions have come and gone, I’ve always thought about Duane and looked for his class updates. As I signed up for our 25th reunion, I thought, “I hope I see Duane!” I really wanted to hear what he’d been up to and to see his grin.

A few weeks ago I received the same email everyone else got about deceased classmates. I scanned the list quickly, knowing that I wouldn’t see anyone I knew. I was wrong. I caught Duane’s name on the list and did a double take. It had to be a mistake! I quickly googled him to confirm our classmate’s colossal blunder. The mistake was all mine.

I cried as I read about Duane’s life and death. The only solace I could find is that the article completely captured the spirit and sense of the man I knew. While Duane and I were not the ‘keep in touch’ kind of friends, he made his mark on me just as he made his mark on the world around him. I know the world was a better place when he was in it. And I know how lucky I am that he said ‘hello’ to me that night in the Lowell House dining hall so many years ago.

-Madeline Temple

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