Honored Hill physician and dedicated community advocate dies


Dr. Susan Jane Higley Bray, a pioneering physician and dedicated community advocate whose name is on the palliative care unit at Temple Health-Chestnut Hill Hospital died on June 6 at the age of 81. Dr. Bray suffered from a heart condition and had been hospitalized for eight weeks due to sepsis.

Throughout her life, Dr. Bray made significant contributions to the medical field and her community. She served as the first female president of the medical staff and the first female chief of nephrology at Chestnut Hill Hospital (CHH). She was an active member of the hospital's medical staff since 1974. Her impressive career as a clinician and teacher left an indelible mark on the hospital and the broader Chestnut Hill community.

"In addition to her professional accomplishments, Susan was such a terrific volunteer on the [Chestnut Hill Community Association  (CHCA)] board and other community organizations," Kathi Clayton, president of the CHCA said last week. "She was active up until a couple weeks ago, when she got really sick. She participated in a conference call about the community fund just 2 1/2 weeks ago. That's how committed she was. She was self-deprecating and an all-around good person.”

Dr. John Cacciamani, president and CEO of Temple Health-Chestnut Hill Hospital, said Dr. Bray had been an active member of the medical staff since 1974, and described her as a “loyal friend.”

"Dr. Bray was a true trailblazer at Chestnut Hill Hospital, especially with regards to gender equity, serving as both the first female president of the medical staff as well as the first female chief of nephrology,” Cacciamani said. “She was an outstanding clinician, teacher and loyal friend of CHH. She left her mark on this hospital and on this community. We will miss her dearly and will work to embody her positive presence amongst our patients and staff."

Susan Bray was born in Oak Park, Illinois, but moved to Mt. Airy with her family at a young age. She attended Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown, Ursinus College in Collegeville and Woman's Medical College in East Falls, where she was part of the school's last all-female class. "I loved every minute of medical school," she told the Local in an interview earlier this year. She worked several years in the pharmacology division of Smith, Kline & French Pharmaceuticals before entering medical school.

For 35 years, Dr. Bray specialized in nephrology, focusing on the diagnosis and treatment of kidney diseases. "I do miss my patients," Bray told the Local when she was hospitalized several months ago. 

Twenty years ago, Bray, who said she had to "re-create” herself every so many years, went back to school for two years for a master's degree in bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. In the process, she also developed an interest in palliative care – a holistic approach to care that focuses on relieving the symptoms and stress of serious illness to improve quality of life.

In the 2000s, Dr. Bray started a lobbying effort, urging Hahnemann University Hospital and CHH to set up palliative care units, which previously did not exist. In September 2011, CHH opened its new palliative department, shortly after Hahnemann had debuted their new unit. Keystone Hospice founded and funded the Chestnut Hill Palliative Care Program.

Several months ago, Gail A. Inderwies, president and executive director of Keystone Care, along with  their staff and board of directors began a drive to name the CHH Palliative Care Program, and earlier this year the program was re-named the Susan Higley Bray Palliative Care Program of Chestnut Hill. (The Keystone Care hospice is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.) 

"Since Susan was the founder and gave us such great service over the years, I thought it was important to name it for her," Inderwies said last week. "We are heartbroken over the loss of Susan but honored to have had the privilege to know and work beside her."

At the time of the re-naming, Bray, who was the medical director of the Keystone Care Palliative Care Program at CHH, told us "I am very honored, but I really feel unworthy of this honor. But if it brings palliative care to the forefront, I'll jump in with both feet." 

Dr. Bray lived in Wyndmoor for 32 years, then Highland Avenue in Chestnut Hill for 16 years and then the Hill House on Evergreen Avenue for two years.

A strong supporter of the Chestnut Hill community, Dr. Bray was also a member of the Rotary Club of Chestnut Hill, Woodmere Art Museum, Chestnut Hill Conservancy and the choir of Our Mother of Consolation Church. She was a fan of local sports teams and, in particular, the Eagles.

According to Andy Sears, president of the Chestnut Hill Rotary, "In her 20 years as a member of the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club, Dr. Bray was always generous and twice served as President. In the South, women with Susan's strength and elegance are referred to as 'Steel Magnolias' ... I never said 'no' to Susan, and that was always the right decision. The presence of a Steel Magnolia is felt the moment they walk into a room, and the presence is lost the moment they leave."

Dr. John Scanlon, chief medical officer for Temple Health-Chestnut Hill Hospital, told us, "We lost a true legend of the hospital and of the community. Dr. Susan Bray is one of the giants in the history of Chestnut Hill Hospital. She has been a clinician, administrator, teacher and friend to many during her almost 50-year tenure at CHH … I am proud to say that she is one of the physician leaders on whose shoulders I stand."

Dr. Bray was the daughter of the late Margaret Snyder Higley and Joseph Brewster Higley. A divorcee, Dr. Bray is survived by four children — Brian, of Fort Washington; Gavin, of Siesta Key, Florida; Tara Bray Dickman, of Lansdale, and Brendan, of Frederick, Maryland — and 14 grandchildren. "It is a wonderful family," she said recently. "I could not ask for anything more. I am very proud of them." She is also survived by a sister, Ellen Higley O’Neill, of Dresher, and she was predeceased by a sister, Karen Lee Higley.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Friday, July 28, 10:30 a.m., at Our Mother of Consolation Church, 9 East Chestnut Hill Ave. Visitation with family will be from 9 to 10:30 a.m. at the church. Memorial donations may be made to Keystone Hospice and Palliative Care, 8765 Stenton Ave., Wyndmoor, PA 19038.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com