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Remembering Susan Harper, MD, Former Assistant Dean for Medical Education

Surrounded by family, Susan Harper MED ’84, died on Wednesday, January 29 in Hanover, NH. She was 61 years old.

A diagnostic radiologist at the VA Hospital in White River Junction, VT, Harper was also assistant dean for medical education and residency advisor at Geisel School of Medicine until 2018. For nearly 30 years she guided medical students through an often-stressful process of moving from medical school to residency.

Beloved by medical students and colleagues, Harper’s Dartmouth taproot ran deep—she met her husband, Christopher Nice MED ’81, a Dartmouth College graduate, while she was a medical student. Following her residency at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA, they together returned to Geisel (then Dartmouth Medical School) in 1989 where she was as an assistant professor of radiology. Her husband took a job as an internist at the VA Hospital in White River Junction where he is now acting chief of primary care, and an assistant professor of medicine at Geisel.

Longtime faculty member Joseph O’Donnell, MD, emeritus professor of medicine and of psychiatry, says of Harper when she was a medical student, “Susan was typical of those we admit—kind and compassionate, she embodied the Dartmouth ethos and went on to do great things.

“As a colleague at the VA, she had a reputation as an incredible diagnostic radiologist and a great teacher. She always made herself available to clinicians with difficult cases, and she ran conferences for the medical team—her radiology conferences were legendary. Susan was a role model for all of our students, especially for those interested in radiology,” O’Donnell recalls.

Susan Harper, MD (right) at Match Day 2016 with Shelsey Weinstein MED '16. (Photo: Jon Gilbert Fox)

Her dedication to students, residents, and alumni was evident across the spectrum of medicine and medical education. In her role as residency advisor, it is widely acknowledged that Harper was pivotal in helping medical students focus their career and where they wanted to match. She counseled them on their residency decisions, urging them to consider more than the professional aspects of a program. Honest about their chances, yet always positive, she was adept at finding people’s strengths both for the resident match and for alumni seeking her advice for career change.

“I had the unique opportunity to have Susan as my advisor when I was a Geisel student and then as an office mate when I became an associate dean,” says John F. Dick III MED ’03, associate dean for clinical education. “Her quality of work and caring for each individual student as a whole person was remarkable. She made sure that her students thought as much about their professional careers as their personal and family lives.

“Despite her much appreciated, tireless efforts on behalf of students, Susan eschewed formal recognition—as she preferred, the majority of her work was behind the scenes, fielding innumerable calls from her students at all hours.”

Choosing a residency is an important decision. Harper understood students needed to talk about it, and the need didn’t always align with office hours. She viewed fielding calls from medical students anxious about matching a normal part of her job, a part she happily embraced. Her commitment to being available to students was so deep it influenced those around her—particularly her husband and three daughters, who often joked they too could counsel anxious students. Match Day became a family affair with Harper bringing her daughters to Geisel’s annual event.

“Susan showed us how to balance work and life,” Dick adds. “She adored her daughters and made clear efforts to spend meaningful time with her family despite the never-ending pressures of her work. When I first returned to Geisel, Susan was leading the Ford Sayre Nordic program and convinced me to help coach my daughter’s group despite my hectic work schedule. I’m grateful to have had such a wonderful role model.”

An active community member, Harper loved the outdoors, spending time with her family hiking and cross-country skiing—for 10 years she led the recreational cross-country skiing Ford Sayre program. Spontaneous with a great sense of fun, it wasn’t unusual for her to arrive at Hanover’s Garipay Field with her car’s trunk full of warm drinks and snacks for the kids and coaches, along with extra mittens for those in need.

“I worked with Susan for many years and she had incredible energy—her love for her family was apparent, as was her dedication to advocate for our students,” says Mikki Jaeger, registrar at Geisel. “She always wanted to do the right thing and help them in any way she could. She was kind to everyone and fun to work with. I miss her.”

The New England Roentgen Ray Society, America’s oldest regional radiology society, of which Harper was a member, named a lecture in her honor. In 2017, Harper was inducted into Geisel’s Academy of Master Educators—distinguished faculty nominated by their peers for excellence in teaching and mentoring.

Geisel colleague Roshini Pinto-Powell, MD, an associate professor of medicine and of medical education, says Harper felt deeply in her soul that Dartmouth and Dartmouth students were special, “She believed in the power of a Dartmouth education and was confident that those outside the institution felt the same way. Our students saw this too—they felt that she believed in them and their dreams.

“Though we feel her loss, we will focus on what was special about her—caring, dedication, and thoughtfulness is her legacy and something we will carry with us in her honor and for our students.”