Dr. David J. Becker, a Chestnut Hill Hospital-affiliated cardiologist whose “Change of Heart” program persuaded two generations of patients to try a heart-healthy “Mediterranean” diet and exercise program that significantly reduced their risk of heart disease, died of brain cancer on Aug. 20.
Becker joined the Chestnut Hill Hospital medical staff as a member of Chestnut Hill Cardiology (now Temple Chestnut Hill Cardiology) in 1990, initiated his heart-healthy program in 1993, and established himself as one of the preeminent cardiologists in the region.
“Dr. Becker volunteered his evenings to teach more than 2,000 patients how to put his (heart-healthy) advice into practice,” said Dr. John Scanlon, chief medical officer of Temple Health/Chestnut Hill Hospital. “He was a universally respected and admired physician in the Philadelphia community for over 30 years.”
According to the American Heart Association, at least 40 million Americans suffer from heart and blood vessel diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke and hypertension. More than 600,000 Americans die every year of heart disease, which accounts for almost one-half of all other reported deaths, or almost as much as all other illnesses combined.
Jackie Yorko, former director of community programs at Chestnut Hill Hospital, told us in an earlier interview that Dr. Becker's Change of Heart patients have included people who have had heart attacks, bypass surgery and angioplasty and also people with high cholesterol or other risk factors for heart disease.
“With an emphasis on lifestyle changes,” Yorko said, “many participants (in the program) are able to reduce or eliminate their medications, including statins (cholesterol-lowering medications).”
A 12-week study in 2006 of 75 of Dr. Becker's patients revealed that his Change of Heart program of diet and exercise lowered their LDL “bad” cholesterol levels by more than 40 percent.
Becker, who also wrote a heart health advice column in the Sunday Inquirer for about eight years, was a native of West Orange, New Jersey. He attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore as an undergraduate and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. His cardiology residency was at Jefferson Hospital, where he met his wife-to-be, Sherri, a registered nurse and adjunct professor at Gwynedd Mercy University.
“David had a way of making people believe in themselves, whether it was a patient, his children, his friends, or me, his wife,” Sherri told us last week. “He was a straight shooter and told it like it was. He had a fun sense of humor and was able to find some laughter each day, even during his illness. I was lucky to be married to him for 37 years. He will be deeply missed.”
“I worked with Dr. Becker for over 30 years,” said Dr. David M. Rodgers of Temple Chestnut Hill Cardiology in Flourtown. “He was an exemplary physician but also an exceptional person. He had a passion for preventive medicine and a remarkable integrity in everything he did. He worked with his Change of Heart patients after a full day of office hours, charged a nominal fee to cover costs and accepted no personal remuneration for the innumerable hours he devoted to this.
“I cannot overstate how difficult it is to have a busy office practice, work in the hospital and make time for these other pursuits while also devoting himself to his family,” Rodgers continued. “David's patients loved him, and his colleagues loved and admired him. We can all take a lesson from the way he lived his life.”
On a personal note, I can say that my wife was a patient of Dr. Becker’s for five years. I accompanied her on several visits to his office on Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown. I once asked him about the beautiful family photo on his desk, and he told us how proud he was of every member of his family.
He always took the time to answer questions. We never felt rushed. He recommended a 'TAVR' operation (transcatheter aortic valve replacement, a less invasive way to replace a diseased aortic valve) for my wife instead of open heart surgery at Penn Presbyterian, and he recommended a particular surgeon, and it all turned out well. His recommendations and his care were excellent.
Terry Gallagher, a former receptionist in the Flourtown office who worked with Becker for 30 years, said last week, “He was well loved. What a wonderful person and doctor. We knew it was coming, though, but he fought it (brain cancer) hard for four years.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Becker is survived by a son, Jeffrey; daughters Carolyn, Emily and Chloe; parents Ina and Ned, three siblings, Lauren, Andrew and Dan, and three grandchildren.
Donations in Dr. Becker’s name may be made to the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, at Penn Medicine Development, 3535 Market St., Suite 750, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104, or the American Heart Association, Box 840692, Dallas, TX 75284-0692.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org