When Dr. Mary Ellen Mahoney '66 moved to Humboldt County nearly 20 years ago, she became a lifeline for residents diagnosed with cancer. Patients in this picturesque community on the Northern California coast used to make the five-plus-hour drive south to the Bay Area for appointments and treatment, a journey that could be especially trying for someone with the disease.
Mahoney, who had spent the previous 20 years as a surgeon at Stanford, wanted to bring the same level of comprehensive big-city care to her new rural home. Today, she is the director of the Cancer Care Program at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka and an active community organizer in efforts to offer cancer support.
For her work on behalf of the community, the California Medical Association bestowed Mahoney with its most prestigious award, the Frederick K.M. Plessner Memorial Award. The award, which honors the California physician who best exemplifies the ethics and practice of a rural country practitioner, was announced October 21.
"Gee, I guess I am a country doctor now," she jokes in a video produced by the CMA.
Mahoney is a woman of firsts. She was the first of her family to graduate from college. She was one of the first female general surgeons to come out of Stanford Medical School. She was the first woman to open a private surgical practice in Palo Alto. She helped design Stanford's first comprehensive cancer center.
In 1994, Mahoney and a group of breast cancer survivors opened Palo Alto's Community Breast Health Project (now known as Bay Area Cancer Connections), which provides support and information to cancer patients. One of those patients happened to be a physician in Humboldt County, who was inspired to create a similar program back home: The Breast and GYN Health Project, a cancer resource center to which Mahoney often refers her patients.
When Mahoney and her husband, surgeon Dr. Luther Cobb, moved to Humboldt County in 2000, "part of the attitude [of patients] was, 'Well, we've chosen to not get top-flight medical care because we've chosen to stay in Humboldt County,'" Mahoney says in the CMA video. "There's no reason why the standard of care should be any different, say, for someone diagnosed with cancer in Humboldt County as compared to somebody diagnosed with cancer in San Mateo, California. It's simply a matter of making sure that everyone knows what that standard is and setting up the system so that it meets that standard."
Cooperation is a big part of that effort. She set up teams to help patients navigate their way through the medical process and developed a collaborative relationship with her colleagues at Stanford, who share their expertise and consult on cases with St. Joseph Hospital medical staff.
With passion, leadership, and warmth, Mahoney has helped Humboldt County cancer patients receive the best possible care without the commute. Says one patient in the CMA video, "She's a life saver."