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Roswell Park colleagues remember doctor who died from skiing injuries

Dr. Meir Wetzler was Nancy Holiman's leukemia doctor, five years before they became colleagues at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. So when Holiman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, she asked him to be there for her – again.

“When I woke up from my surgery, there was my breast surgeon on one side and Meir was on the other,” Holiman said Tuesday. “He stayed with me until I was discharged.”

Dr. Wetzler, described by colleagues as a beloved figure at Roswell, died Monday in the Swedish Medical Center in Denver, where he had been a patient in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit following a Feb. 7 skiing accident. He was 60.

The Israeli-born Dr. Wetzler, who had been at Roswell Park since 1994, served as chief of the Leukemia Section, and that's where he first met Holiman, who was critically ill and was the first patient in one of his clinical trials for leukemia in 2002.

“I'm still here 13 years later,” she said. “He was always there with me, on nights and weekends. When I read my medical records now, I don't know how he got me through this. I attribute that to him and his medical dedication.”

Holiman, now a major gifts officer for the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation, called Dr. Wetzler her linchpin, her “medical quarterback.”

“I feel sad for all the people down the road who will come here for their leukemia treatment, and they will miss his medical intellect and his compassion,” she added.

An intense, serious physician, Dr. Wetzler also flashed his fun side, especially with the passion he showed while leading Roswell Park teams in the annual Gelatin Splash for the local chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“Through the years, we saw him dress as Shrek, he was the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland ... and the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz,” said Nancy Hails, executive director of the leukemia society's local chapter. “And one of my favorites was Giligan from Gilligan's Island.”

How did she square the intense and the fun-loving sides of this accomplished doctor?

“I think he would do just about anything to raise funds for leukemia research,” Hails replied.

Roswell colleagues couldn't help but chuckle Tuesday at the thoughts of the tough-minded Dr. Wetzler diving into the gelatin pool with such gusto every summer.

“He gave the impression of being very serious, and then you'd see pictures of him dressed as Aladdin, and you'd think, 'Is this the same guy?' ” recalled Dr. Philip L. McCarthy, director of Roswell's Blood and Marrow Transplant Center.

Others marveled at Dr. Wetzler's ability to relate to his patients. As Holiman, his onetime patient and later colleague, said, “He was no-nonsense, and yet he was compassionate.”

Besides serving as chief of Roswell Park's Leukemia Section, Dr. Wetzler was professor of oncology at Roswell, professor of internal medicine at the University at Buffalo Medical School, author of more than 100 published medical articles and chairman of Roswell's Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee. He also was known for the annual summer picnic he and his wife, Chana, held for his medical team in their Amherst home.

Dr. Wetzler earned his medical degree from Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem in 1980, before completing several fellowships at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

McCarthy remembered how Dr. Wetzler led a joint meeting on Friday mornings between Roswell's Leukemia Section and the facility's Blood and Marrow Transplant team, taking “great pains” to make sure everyone was on the same page when it came to the plans for the patients' treatment.

“His passion recently was working with young adult patients living with leukemia,” said Hails, from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “He was really passionate about it.”

Hails won't forget the bonds that Dr. Wetzler helped build with her organization.

“We have lost a truly great friend and a great ambassador,” she said. “His shoes will never be filled.”

While Roswell Park colleagues had known for a couple weeks that Dr. Wetzler had been critically injured in the Colorado skiing accident, the news of his death Monday left them both grieving and smiling at his persona and contributions.

“Meir touched us all in so many different ways; Roswell Park has lost a dedicated son,” Dr. Alex A. Adjei, chairman of the cancer institute's Department of Medicine, stated in an email to the Roswell community Monday night. “All of us who worked with him and interacted with him are better people because we knew Meir. He will be sorely missed.”

Dr. Wetzler is survived by his wife, Chana; two daughters, Mor and Shira; and two sons, Adam and Modi.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com

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