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Dr. Freda: Role Model and Inspiration to All

Dr. Margaret Comeford Freda considers herself privileged to be the right person in the right place at the right time. But after 26 years at Einstein, those she touched consider her something more – an inspiration to those she worked with and a guiding force for all nurses.

Dr. Margaret Comeford Freda
Dr. Margaret Comeford Freda
"The impact Dr. Freda and her work will ultimately have on Einstein, the medical and nursing professions and women's health cannot be adequately measured," said Dr. Karla Damus of her friend's recent retirement.

Dr. Freda remains humble when discussing her impact, stating, "I would just like to be remembered as someone who helped women who needed help."

Growing up, nursing and teaching were the most important career tracks for women. Dr. Freda wanted to walk both paths, choosing to become a labor/delivery nurse in New York, Texas, and even Anchorage, Alaska before eventually obtaining a Master's degree from NYU.

"I wanted to do something for others and leave a mark," she said. "In order to do so, I had to go full force and never look back."

Dr. Freda initially taught nursing at Molloy College before an insatiable taste for knowledge led her to a Ph.D. program at Adelphi University in 1983. Although she only took one course before switching to Columbia University, it was that one course that would forever change her life. "I met a woman who told me about a great job in the Bronx that would allow me to get involved in research while still teaching," Dr. Freda recalled.

That woman was Dr. Ruth Merkatz. Her husband, Dr. Irwin Merkatz, the longtime chair of obstetrics & gynecology and women's health, was searching for help implementing the PROPP (Program to Reduce Obstetrical Problems and Prematurity) grant from Robert Wood Johnson and the March of Dimes. Dr. Freda was the perfect choice for his team; one that included Dr. Damus, a nurse with a Ph.D. in epidemiology, who served as the program director. Although unusual, Dr. Merkatz saw value in having nurses on the faculty of a medical school.

"My wife's career and my own have intertwined for 50 years," he said. "Nurses provide an insight no physician can replicate. My department has been the beneficiary of their expertise."

For five years, Dr. Freda served as assistant professor, teaching doctors and nurses about pre-term birth prevention, a topic rarely discussed at the time, while helping develop methods to reduce its incidence in the Bronx. She also participated in multiple research projects, picking up an infinite amount of wisdom from her colleagues, allowing her to lead several research projects on her own – all while completing her doctoral work toward attaining an Ed.D. in health education from Columbia University's Teacher's College in 1987.

"Einstein became the place where I satisfied my passion to help the underserved raise healthy families," she said.

Her research contributed to the evidence-based knowledge on what women understand about their health, what they can do to modify risk factors and how to improve perinatal outcomes by teaching them the signs and symptoms of pre-term labor and the importance of kick-counts for fetal well-being. She focused on what women want to learn and how they learn it, and she translated some of her research findings into a practical guide on perinatal patient education that offered bilingual health literacy appropriate for patients.

When the PROPP funding ended, Dr. Merkatz asked her to stay. He was impressed with her passion and her work ethic, noting that she never shied away from any job. "She believed everything she could do to improve the department was part of her job," he said.

"Whenever we would come across a problem that needed to be solved, I would say, ''piece of cake,'' and one day Margaret came in with a model plastic piece of cake," he added. "It still sits on my desk as a symbol that we can tackle anything."

As Dr. Freda continued at Einstein, research continued to be her passion. She taught residents and medical students about research method and design while also conducting multiple studies on the health education needs of women. Her findings were published in more than 70 peer-reviewed papers, seven book chapters, and three books. Ultimately, her vast knowledge and expertise led her to be promoted to associate professor in 1995 and to professor of clinical obstetrics & gynecology and women's health in 2002. "She outpaced me," said Dr. Damus. "I was supposed to be her mentor, but the roles reversed. Margaret became a mentor to so many and she became my role model."

While helping nurses and graduating residents develop, present, write and publish their studies, she also made invaluable contributions that benefited physicians, who in turn helped her to reach new heights.

In addition to her work at Einstein, since 1998, Dr. Freda has served as the editor-in-chief of MCN: The American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing, one of the largest professional publications for nurses in women's health. In that role she has had a profound impact on perinatal nursing and, with colleagues, initiated a new area of research in nursing – examining on an international scale what it means to be a scholarly nurse editor and how nurse reviewers do their work.

"Margaret is very proud of this research," noted Dr. Damus. "It appeared in ten peer-reviewed publications and, as a result of it, nursing journals with impact factors almost tripled in quantity, with new journals added annually."

Not surprisingly, her work has earned her leadership recognition and awards including being elected in 1992 as a fellow to the prestigious American Academy of Nursing and serving for a decade as chair of the National Nurse Advisory Council for the March of Dimes. Dr. Freda also is a member of various organizations, including the American Nurses Association and the Society for Public Health Education, and has served on countless national committees. But of all the distinctions, the recent annual award named in her honor – The March of Dimes Margaret Comerford Freda "Saving Babies, Together" Award (which will be awarded annually through the national Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses) – is the highest and most fitting tribute.

"I have been involved with the national and local chapters of the March of Dimes for many years and this is one of the biggest honors I've ever received," she said.

Still, for Dr. Freda, it all comes back to Einstein. "My role at Einstein has been my most important position," she said. "It is paramount to what I have done with my career."

Honoring her work, she was bestowed with the title of professor. In addition, the department plans to include a portrait photograph of Dr. Freda among those hanging at the entrance to its office suite on the fifth floor of the Belfer building; she will have the special distinction of being the only nurse pictured in this way among the department's elite.

Even so, her former colleagues know she is never far away. "If Dr. Merkatz asked Dr. Freda to help a physician with a research project, she'd be there," Dr. Damus said. "That's just the kind of person she has always been."

Posted on: Friday, December 02, 2011