Marie Russell, M.D.

Marie Olivieri RussellMarie Olivieri Russell, M.D. ’66 always wanted to teach.

“I was a very serious student,” she said. “I used to teach my younger brothers and sisters out in our garage. All my life I thought I was going to be a teacher.”

Russell’s decision to go into medicine, however, was influenced by her reading. “I was a big reader,” said Russell. “I read some of Tom Dooley’s books, I read about nursing, and I just decided that I wanted to be a doctor, so I started to pursue that path. And, probably unlike many women [at that time], when I mentioned it to my father, he said ‘we’ll help you any way we can.’”

An immigrant with little formal schooling, Russell’s father placed a high value on education, but he had one non-negotiable: his daughter must attend a Catholic college. When Immaculata offered Russell a full scholarship, the choice was clear.

“Immaculata was life-changing for me,” said Russell. “I was only the second person in my family to go to college and Immaculata opened my mind to a lot of information, and it was very nurturing. I think the Sisters and professors cared very much about the welfare and success of their students, and I made wonderful friends who are still my friends today.”

The number of pre-med students in Russell’s class provided a nourishing, non-competitive peer support group. “We encouraged each other and, in terms of the percentage of women in our class who were accepted into medical school, none of the other local schools could match it.”

Russell received another full scholarship, this time to Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and graduated first in her class in 1970.

“We were only the fourth class at Jefferson that included women,” said Russell. “There were 17 of us in a class of 175, so that was a big change from Immaculata.” But Russell added, “We felt accepted by the professors and our peers. We had a great class. I felt very prepared, and I had lots of fun.

“I’ve thought a lot over the years about Immaculata,” said Russell, “how it was just a wonderful gift for me. I felt very confident when I measured my education and knowledge against others who had gone to Ivy League schools and I realized they didn’t know more than I did. It was just such a blessing.”

Russell was either going into family practice or pediatrics and chose The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for her residency, then a fellowship in hematology/oncology. During that time, Russell was invited to be a full voting member of the Board of Trustees of Thomas Jefferson University and did that for two terms, and she ran the Sickle Cell Program at Children’s until 1981.

By then, Russell was married with four children, her husband a general surgeon in private practice; that’s when she chose pediatric primary care, “my real love,” over academic medicine. She joined a doctor who had trained at Children’s and, when that physician moved away to be closer to family, Russell took over for her.

According to Russell, “My background made me comfortable with children with serious or chronic illnesses. Children are amazingly authentic human beings and I really enjoyed working with them, as well as teaching and empowering the parents. In some ways,” noted Russell, “I was doing what I always wanted to do, which is teach people.”

As a physician, Russell “always had a strong sense of responsibility for the decisions I had to make for my patients. It was a hard thing to grapple with.” As a wife and mother, Russell’s life challenge was balancing career and family, raising four children and working. Her decision to leave Children’s in 1981 to be able to work part-time for a while in primary care was informed by her devotion to her children. “They are still the most important part of my life,” said Russell. “Part of the reason I retired at 60 was that I wanted to be mom and grandmom to them. Family support is so important. I saw that all the time in my practice. Since all of my married children are military families, I needed to be able to be there for them.”

During her academic and primary care careers, Russell was asked to talk to female residents about balancing career and family. “At first, I said no,” said Russell, “because I don’t know how to do it.” But she was reassured that someone struggling with those issues was exactly the person for the job, and Russell began speaking to women residents and students “on a fairly regular basis,” either informally or through sponsored programs.

Today, Russell is self-employed as a marketing representative for a wellness company and is still teaching people about health, both personal and environmental.

Looking back, Russell says, “I feel very content. It was chaotic and challenging at times, but it was great. And my kids still love me!

“Everything we have is a gift from God,” said Russell, whose years at Immaculata coincided with Vatican II. “That time in the church was very formative in my life and my faith is still strong. I thank my mother and God for that.”

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