Longtime nurse and health advocate for mothers and babies helped establish protocol after infants’ deaths
Donna Becker was working to help families cope with the sudden death of an infant when she learned police would quickly take the body away for a routine investigation. Ms. Becker pressed for reforms to give parents time and space to grieve with the child’s body.
Donna Chew Becker died Sept. 7 at her home in Ocean Pines, Md., after more than 30 years working in public health. She was 72 and had a rare liver cancer, her son Holden Becker said.
The former executive director of the Center for Infant & Child Loss, Ms. Becker’s work is also credited with lowering rates of sudden infant death syndrome in Baltimore.
She raised two children as a single mother and took in her teenage niece, all while earning a reputation for doggedly pursuing reforms.
“My mother knew how to work a system,” Holden Becker said. “She also knew when a system wasn’t going to work. When those times happened, she was like a dog with a bone — she was not letting it go.”
The daughter of Ralph Chew, who worked at Westinghouse, and Elizabeth Chew, a nurse, Ms. Becker was raised in Northeast Baltimore and graduated from the former Eastern High School in 1962. She graduated from the University of Maryland School of Nursing in 1966.
Ms. Becker spent 15 years as a public health nurse in Baltimore and worked at a Penn North clinic during the riots of 1968. She made house calls to the sick and homebound, treated stigmatized AIDS patients, and led a city program providing milk and infant formula to mothers.
Ms. Becker would sometimes bring along her two children when making house calls. Ms. Becker, who was white, was quite at ease in African-American neighborhoods, her son said. “Color didn’t matter to her,” he said. Rosemary Murphey worked with Ms. Becker at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “She had a unique ability to connect with people from all socioeconomic backgrounds,” Murphey said.
Ms. Becker began work in the late 1980s for the department. She worked 12 years in maternal and child services and secured federal grants to hire nurses to visit pregnant women at risk of premature births.
Ms. Becker also launched a statewide program to help families with disabled children and prepare those boys and girls for school.
“It’s really hard to say how many people were positively impacted by her,” Murphey said.
Ms. Becker earned a master’s degree in nursing from Bowie State University in 1994.
She worked about a decade at the Center for Infant & Child Loss in Baltimore. She served as executive director and learned police would treat an infant’s body as routine evidence after a sudden death, said Jean Edwards, who works at the center.
“She was like, ‘Oh, we’re getting on this right away,’ ” Ms. Edwards said.
Ms. Becker commissioned a letter from the office of the chief medical examiner to explain proper practices and sent copies to hospitals throughout Maryland. The two women also trained police in Prince George’s County.
“Donna understood the length of the grief,” Ms. Edwards said. “She empathized with families.”
Ms. Becker also launched an awareness effort to provide pamphlets with safety tips — including that babies should always sleep on their backs — after every new birth in Maryland. And she ensured families had a safe and comfortable space at fundraisers for the nonprofit center.
“I don’t think they make public health nurses like her anymore,” Ms. Edwards said. After her retirement in 2009, she taught a few years part-time at the Nurses’ Clinic at Paul’s Place, a collaboration between Paul’s Place, a social-services agency in Pigtown, and the University of Maryland School of Nursing. By then, she had moved to Roland Park and doted over her day lilies, coralbells and irises.
About four years ago, she retired to Ocean Pines, where she volunteered at the Art League of Ocean City. In Baltimore, she volunteered at the zoo.
Ms. Becker had divorced George Donald Becker of Columbia and raised her two children in Howard County. She also took in her niece when the teenager’s mother and father died.
A single mother, Ms. Becker would tour yard sales and thrift stores to furnish their home. She wanted a nice house, Holden Becker said, but she couldn’t afford one. She taught herself basic electrical and plumbing repairs and how to refinish salvaged furniture.
“We would go out on Saturdays and go to yard sales and find the treasures and leave the junk,” Holden Becker said.
On trash nights, the mother and children would scout the alleys. Ms. Becker would spot something with potential and bust out with, “You have to have vision!” her son said.
A memorial service is scheduled from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Oct. 22 at the Art League of Ocean City, 502 94th St.
Ms. Becker is survived by a son, Christopher Becker of Baltimore; niece Kimberly Roche of Sanford, N.C.; four grandchildren; and son Holden Becker. He lives in Berlin, Md., but his first house, one that his mother helped decorate, was in Hampden.
They had found an old dresser for that house, one from a thrift store and pasted with children’s contact paper of duckies and bear cubs.
“It was hideous,” he said, but his mother recognized solid oak beneath.
They left with the dresser leaning from their car with its duckies and bear cubs. Passing drivers stared, Holden Becker said, and his mother called out, “You have to have vision!” Donna Becker frequented yard sales and thrift stores to furnish her home.