Donna Becker

Long­time nurse and health ad­vo­cate for moth­ers and ba­bies helped es­tab­lish pro­to­col af­ter in­fants’ deaths

Baltimore Sun - - OBITUARIES - By Tim Pru­dente tpru­dente@balt­sun.com

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.

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