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Robert McCabe

Obituary

Robert E. McCabe Jr.

1925-2013 LONDONDERRY It was the summer of 1979 when the call came in to Dr. Robert E. McCabe Jr., founder and director of the kidney recovery program at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City: A 14-year-old girl from Norfolk, Virginia, had died in a car accident. Could he find a recipient for one of her kidneys? So began a 50-hour international match-hunting marathon that made the front page of the New York Times and wound up with a finish line in Moscow and the promise of a new life for a 36-year-old Russian man. That was just one of the highlights of the long and productive career of Dr. McCabe who died peacefully at his home in Londonderry, Vermont, surrounded by his children on Thursday, Aug. 29. He was 88 and had battled cancer for 10 months after losing is wife of 58 years, Katherine Robinson McCabe, to a similar disease last October. Throughout his illness, he never lost his sense of humor, joking with a team of wonderful care-givers even through the grimmest moments. That same spirit carried him through the grinding years of medical school to Germany, where he served as an Army surgeon from 1955 to 1957, and finally to New York City, where he began his pioneering work with clinical kidney transplantation and the development of kidney preservation through machine perfusion. The American Society of Transplant Surgeons, a 2,000-strong group of which he was a charter member, notes on its website that "his efforts to expand organ preservation ultimately led to the development of more widespread organ sharing and technical advances in pump perfusion of kidneys"--another way of saying that Dr. McCabe was driven to do all that he could to advance his field knowing well that each step forward meant more lives saved. No challenge was too daunting. A photo from a 1971 story in New York's Daily News captured Dr. McCabe dashing beneath the blades of a just-landed chopper, cradling in his arms a white box with its precious cargo--a pair of kidneys ready for transplantation. But the police car waiting to rush him to the hospital with the organs had parked on a patch of soggy earth by the side of the road, its rear wheels stuck deep in the mud. Dressed in his suit and tie, with invaluable minutes ticking by, Dr. McCabe got behind that car, leaned into the bumper, and pushed with every muscle he had. The paper caught that image, too--and put it on the front page. His commitment to his work was absolute. Demanding of himself, he expected no less from those with whom he collaborated. "I always told our residents that half your patients get sick with complications at night or on weekends. So if you really want to learn something, you've got to be there more than eight hours a day," Dr. McCabe once told an interviewer. "There was no such thing as an eight-hour day in those days, and no such thing as a five-day week either." At a patient's bedside, that drive translated into an uncommon gentleness, a trait much-loved among the countless people Dr. McCabe cared for over the years. Despite the intense demands of his career, Dr. McCabe was, beyond anything else, a deeply devoted and loving family man. He found time--always--for his wife and children. In the winter months, he would often rise at 4 a.m. on Sundays, load the car with ski gear for everyone and barrel north through the dark--five sleepy kids in tow--for a full day of skiing in Vermont, only to turn around and drive home again to be ready for work the next morning. A native of West Virginia and its rugged hills, he loved the hills of Vermont even more, and when the moment came he retired to one with the most provocative of names: Hell's Peak. For Dr. McCabe, the steep and winding road up to the home he built there with Kathy was like a joy ride to heaven. He couldn't have been happier. Gregarious and always grinning with delight when visitors knocked on his door, Dr. McCabe loved people and travel. In his retirement, he roamed the world with his wife, from Beijing to London and countless stops in between. An ardent outdoorsman, he backpacked through Alaska, the Rockies, and the White Mountains with his camera--another love--capturing vistas and close-ups with a keen eye for composition. In the days before digital photography, he could be found in his basement darkroom, pulling from basins of chemicals prints of his adventures and portraits of his family. In 1934, Dr. McCabe got his first pair of skis: two wooden slats without bindings or edges; toe straps held his feet in place. That gift from his father launched a life-long passion: he skied late into his 80's, once surviving an avalanche on Mt. Washington's Tuckerman's Ravine, and later carving cross-country paths with his wife through the woods and fields off Hell's Peak Road. As much as he loved snow, he also loved what spring brought: gardens bursting with the flowers and vegetables he and Kathy nurtured. Tomatoes and dahlias were his specialties, and throughout the late summer vases full of pink, yellow, and red blooms would fill the rooms of their house. Dr. McCabe was born in Charleston, W. Va. on Feb. 20, 1925. A 1948 graduate of Williams College, he earned his medical degree in 1953 from Cornell University Medical College, later becoming a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Together with his wife, they raised five children in Englewood, N.J., before making the much-anticipated move to Londonderry. There, Dr. McCabe threw himself into community activities, becoming president of the Londonderry Arts and Historical Society and serving as chairman of the board of directors for the Mountain Valley Medical Clinic. He leaves his children and their spouses: Elsie McCabe Smith and Bill Smith of Bondville, Vt.; Coco McCabe and Doug Stewart of Ipswich, Mass.; Robert Emmet McCabe III and Sue McCray of Delmar, N.Y; Rue McCabe Sherwood and George Sherwood of Ipswich, Mass.; Kay McCabe and Rod Griffin of of Norwich; nine grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. He is also survived by brother-in-law, Powell Robinson Jr. of Marshfield, Mass.; and brother- and sister-in-law, Charles and Cynthia Robinson of Mendham, N.J. He was predeceased by his brother, Brooks F. McCabe of Charleston, W.Va., and his sister, Caroline M. Harris of Rye, N.Y. Dr. McCabe's family will hold a celebration of his life on Saturday, Sept. 28, at 4 p.m. at the Second Congregational church, 2051 Main St., Londonderry, Vt. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory can be made to the Londonderry Arts and Historical Society at PO Box 366, Londonderry, Vt., 05148.
Published in The Manchester Journal from Sept. 20 to Oct. 11, 2013
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