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Melissa E. RooneySeptember 18, 2017
Melissa E. Rooney, 47, of Mount Airy, a social worker at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital who began her career working with HIV-infected patients in the 1990s and later helped manage thousands of cases in the hospital’s organ-transplant program, died Monday, Sept. 18, of cancer at Good Shepherd Hospice in Philadelphia.
Ms. Rooney had peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare cancer that affects the lining of the abdomen. Oncologists initially struggled to diagnose it and could offer little hope. Her death came 10 months after the diagnosis, shattering her husband, three sons, and a community of friends and extended family.
The loss was keenly felt by the doctors and social workers with whom she worked. “She made a difference here.” said Maria McCall, senior director of clinical services at Jefferson and Ms. Rooney’s supervisor. “Everybody here is just absolutely crushed.”
Ms. Rooney also was a mainstay of the Mount Airy neighborhood in which she lived – one known for its devotion to cooperatives. Mount Airy neighbor and friend Brandi McLaughlin described Ms. Rooney as a “fiber” of the community.
Ms. Rooney had helped facilitate cooperative child summer camps and babysitting groups aimed at helping families pool their labor to enrich children’s lives. She was so well-known that neighbors loved to stop her and chat; shopping trips at Weavers Way Co-op would easily take an hour.
“When people here learned how sick she was, it was profoundly upsetting because she touched everyone,” said McLaughlin, a fellow mother. “If she knew somebody needed something, she found a way to do it.”
Ms. Rooney was manager of transplant social work and patient finance for the Jefferson Transplant Institute. Prior to her illness, she was being groomed to take over as senior director. A calm, empathetic listener, she could participate in life-and-death situations while managing input from doctors, patients, and their families.
She also possessed a steely pragmatism that often helped her be the “lone voice of reason in the room” when assessing which patients appeared capable of handling the financial and emotional burdens that follow transplant surgery, McCall said.
But when it came to her own health struggles, she was intensely private. Her colleagues cried when told of it. She had beaten breast cancer less than two years earlier and recovered from being hit by a car in front of the hospital. Yet, she never so much as asked for help carrying a file, as she hobbled down the hall on crutches, McCall said.
“Losing somebody like Melissa, it really hit them hard,” McCall said of the transplant team. “None of us have been able to make any peace with it.”
Born in Baltimore and reared in Drexel Hill, Ms. Rooney graduated in 1988 from Upper Darby High School. Her father, John, was a U.S. postal inspector, her mother, Sally, a retired professor of sociology at La Salle University.
While studying sociology and psychology at St. Joseph’s University, Ms. Rooney cofounded the Women’s Center, an educational gathering spot that remains in place on the Philadelphia Jesuit school campus. She was an active worker for abortion rights.
She also found another lifelong love at St. Joe’s – fellow student Vic Gatmaitan. The two married in 1998.
In 1994, Ms. Rooney completed a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University. She also completed a second master’s degree in women’s studies after winning a Rotary Club scholarship for study at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
When she joined Jefferson in 1995 as an HIV social worker, the field was still evolving after its emergence in the 1980s. She became well-known across the hospital, McCall said.
But it was having children that proved to be Ms. Rooney’s greatest joy and passion. She devoted herself to sons Ciaran, Mateo, and Marcelo Rooney-Gatmaitan.
“They have no idea that the rest of the world isn’t like their mom,” McLaughlin said. “I want her kids to always know how great she lived life. And no matter how hard life [becomes], she loved life and giving to others.”
Ms. Rooney enjoyed chocolate, coffee, and Janis Joplin songs. In the kitchen, she was a pastry chef par excellence. She studied cookbooks long and hard, and became a master of savory dishes.
Her love of running continued through life, and she devoured books with the same hustle that she brought to every task. She loved standing in lines so that could catch up on the New Yorker.
On Election Day 2016, although hospitalized, Ms. Rooney insisted on casting a vote for Hillary Clinton. Her sister Erin Rooney became her court-appointed proxy.
Besides her husband, parents, sister, and three sons, she is survived by sisters Moira Rooney and Molly McKeever; a brother, John Rooney; four nieces; and three nephews.
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