A Change of Heart

Why did Dr. Dervilla McCann ’77 give Bates a second chance?

By Doug Hubley. Photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

On a December night in 1998, despite the stomach trouble he’d felt all day, Leigh Campbell ’62 decided to drive from Lewiston to Portland with friends. The plan was dinner at Vallee’s, followed by a Christmas show at Merrill Auditorium.

“I didn’t want to miss the concert. I’d paid big bucks for the ticket,” Campbell remembers with a wry smile. “That’s where my priorities were.”

Longtime overseer of financial aid at Bates College, Campbell badly needed some stress relief. After years of stability, his area was undergoing reorganization. He welcomed the evening’s diversion — but it’s amazing how priorities can change. En route to Portland, Campbell started feeling chest pains and sweating heavily. Vallee’s and “Sleigh Ride” were suddenly off the menu. Campbell’s friend, Walter Moulton, said, “We’re not going to any concert. We’re going to the hospital.”

“I didn’t fight the idea too hard,” Campbell says.

Campbell was lucky. “As heart attacks go, mine was modest,” he says, and he responded well to emergency care in Portland, six weeks of home rest and a cardiac rehab program at Central Maine Medical Center. At the end of that time he found himself sitting down with a fellow alum, Dervilla McCann ’77, a cardiologist who had just joined Androscoggin Cardiology Associates, in Auburn.

Campbell remembers what McCann said on that first appointment: “One of the first things in the treatment of all this is to realize, as a doctor, that this is a patient who, perhaps for the first time, is coming into contact with his own mortality.”

Tears welled in his eyes. “I asked her if this was a wakeup call,” he says. “And she said, ‘If you want it to be.'”

“Part of the thing that I think I bring to the field of cardiology is an understanding of the emotional, ‘mind’ part of the mind-body connection,” McCann says — and her patients, the now-robust Campbell among them, would likely agree. But her professional reputation is strong across the board. She is known as a specialist in women’s cardiac health and an investigator in the national research trials in which Androscoggin Cardiology takes part. McCann takes stands on public health issues, recently blasting outgoing Maine Gov. Angus King for retreating from a state-funded advertising campaign targeted at the overconsumption of soda.

All of which imparts both some irony and a definite redemptive quality to the McCann story. Twenty-five years ago, the newly graduated McCann was in full retreat to her parents’ home in Portland, bearing a set of grades from Bates that by all accounts would never get her into medical school. Bearing too a grudge against the College establishment that was nearly total — the only, and shining, exceptions being longtime dance director Marcy Plavin and the dance program itself.

“I was mad for a long time — really mad,” McCann admits. Mad at what she saw as a rigid, conservative academy that shunned creative teaching, held itself aloof from the community, and left students to sink or swim in the cold waters of that famous academic rigor. Doubly mad when it seemed as if “the only contact I would have from Bates was a calendar and a request for a contribution.”

In fact, with colleges nationwide wondering if there really is a “lost generation” of alienated 1970s graduates — and if there is, how to reconnect with them — the story of McCann’s relationship with Bates takes on a broader resonance. Fortunately it’s an off-again, on-again story, and what changed her mind, in effect, was an invitation to the dance.

Dervilla McCann found her way back to Bates in 1999, the same year she joined Androscoggin Cardiology, when the Bates Dance Festival asked her to join its advisory council. And when she stepped back onto campus after 22 years, it was a different McCann and a different Bates.

“When I was a student, I saw lots to criticize,” she says. “Now that I’m a member of the community and an alumna, I see a lot of things that are very positive about the school.

“Obviously two things have happened: I’ve changed and the school’s changed,” she laughs.

“Dervilla is someone that people have a very strong sense of right away,” notes Geri FitzGerald ’75, who worked with McCann in the Modern Dance Company, roomed with her parents for a while after graduation and has remained a friend. “You know where she stands. There’s no wishy-washiness, nothing hazy. She’s a very defined person.”

McCann is also a fine storyteller — self-aware, funny and possessed of a fine command of narrative techniques, such as symbolism, motif and the all-important tension-and-release. This last often takes the form of irresistible force (her) meeting nearly immovable object (Bates, Columbia, husband-to-be, U.S. Navy, thieving male Swedish au pair).

A typical McCann tale involves her introduction to Bates, via a friend whose dad was a devoted alumnus. When George Paige ’35 encouraged daughter Holly to have a look-see, McCann went along for the ride from Barrington, R.I. And here, in what may be one of Bates’ least representative admissions cases, McCann found herself enthralled by a football game. Or at least the grandstand action.

“It was rainy and gray and cold,” McCann says. “I wasn’t a big football fan, but I had the time of my life. It was absolutely uproariously funny, because the people in the grandstand knew that Bates did not have a hope of winning this football game” — the Bobcats were 1-7-0 that year — “and they did not care. “It didn’t matter if it was raining, it didn’t matter that they were losing,” she says. “Everyone just had an absolutely terrific time.” And while Holly Paige went elsewhere, that grandstand camaraderie sold McCann.

Indeed, although Dervilla herself was uncertain about her future, a school with Bates’ strong reputation in the sciences was seemingly a natch for her: Her grandfather, aunt, two uncles, and mother and father, Eithne and Cairbre, were all doctors.

The strong-willed Dervilla (self-described as bookish and “tough to live with”) was determined by age 7 to become a doctor. But as she grew into adolescence, she explains, “I became concerned about the fact that I hadn’t really considered any other opportunities or possibilities — that maybe I was just doing this because my parents were doctors.

“And I think that confusion about whether I should really do that led, in part, to not being as focused as I should have been at Bates.” Well, as that great sage Neil Diamond wrote, it’s a little bit me, and it’s a little bit you, too. Bates met McCann’s lack of focus with an institutional culture — by no means unique to this school — that hadn’t quite mastered the carrot in the “carrot and stick” formula. The social liberalization of the late 1960s transformed students much more quickly than it did their schools, and clashes between differing cultures and sets of expectations were inevitable.

For many students, of course, Bates and other schools continued to deliver golden experiences straight out of an admissions viewbook. But the graduates who weren’t so thrilled were numerous enough — and, perhaps as important, felt empowered enough to make their feelings plain — that in some alumni circles, “Lost Generation” refers as much to alienated alums from the ’70s as it does to Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

“There was a lot of new thinking and creativity and emphasis on youth,” McCann says, “and Bates was stodgy and conservative and really not interested in listening to the rebels and changing anything about itself.”

In short, McCann and Bates did not connect in fundamental ways. McCann, says Marcy Plavin, “was rebellious, and I think it was good for her. I think a lot of students were sort of fighting their way through.” Jim Carignan ’61, then dean of the College and recently retired, vividly recalls McCann reading him the riot act.

“She prided herself on not fitting into any molds. She was bright, articulate” — he laughs — “relentless. All the things that make good doctors.”

Attitude aside, she couldn’t seem to thrive academically. McCann says, “I never could quite get my grades up — I couldn’t focus on that one thing.” McCann’s performance at Bates wasn’t a disaster, but she did not get grades adequate for medical school.

For its part, unlike today, Bates did not always link its high academic expectations (and, in some cases, its tradition of punitive grading) to support systems that would promote actual student success. In particular, the mentoring of med-school hopefuls for which Bates is now admired was just beginning. The science faculty was still known for its Darwinian view of student outcomes, and current faculty, like Lee Abrahamsen, associate professor of biology and chair of the Medical Studies Committee, say the pre-med track was especially tough for women and students of color.

Bates was just figuring out where it needed to go, Carignan says. “The transition at Bates reflected the transition nationally,” he says, “as we tried to pay greater attention to providing support for students. Dervilla was on the early end of that wave.”

In her pursuit of a science degree, McCann felt that she was left entirely to her own devices. “I think they created a system of winners and losers,” says McCann. “And I felt very much a loser. I really felt that I was not celebrated, or even mentored — with the complete exception of Marcy Plavin.”

McCann was one of a markedly talented and enthusiastic generation of Modern Dance Company performers that also included FitzGerald and her classmates Linda Erickson Rawlings, Suzanne Carbonneau (now a critic and historian of dance), and John Carrafa (now a much-in-demand New York choreographer).

Dance, says McCann, “just opened up a completely different world.” She says, “You have this stuff locked up inside and you want to get it out, and you can’t and you can’t and you can’t. And you start to dance, and all of a sudden you can.” In dance, too, McCann learned to deal with the learning style, that inability to concentrate, that set her both apart and back in traditional academics. “Repetition and drilling, again and again and again,” she says. “And I didn’t mind. I loved it.

“I had to do something six times,” she says, where “somebody else could do it once and they had it. And I didn’t get it — but then I did, and I didn’t forget it.”

“Dance performance is Discipline 101,” McCann says. “I wasn’t rebellious at all.”

The result was striking. “She was a very intelligent dancer,” says FitzGerald. “There was always a sense of where the movement came from with her — it wasn’t movement that was just draped upon her shoulders or in her arms. There was a sense of soul behind it.”

“You knew how seriously she took it,” adds her classmate David Foster, “and she was able to bring you in with her, and make you take it seriously.”

After graduation McCann moved to Portland, where her parents were practicing rehabilitative medicine at Maine Medical Center. “She really wanted to become a doctor,” says Geri FitzGerald. “She had a lot of people discourage her, but she was so passionate about becoming one, and I think that same passion is what her patients hook into and are captivated by.”

But while McCann’s heart said yes, her grades said no. She taught dance for a while, started smoking for mood relief and then, surprise, actually found work in health care. Sort of. It was at Maine Medical Center, “as an admitting-room secretary, wearing a blue polyester smock and asking people for their Blue Cross-Blue Shield number while they were bleeding on the floor,” she says.

Despite its drawbacks, the job was a good vantage point on the medical professions. “I became, first, very desperate, and second, very convinced that I could probably do what these doctors were doing,” she says. A hospital vice president suggested McCann could bulk up her academic record for medical school at the School of General Studies at Columbia University, a program designed for people making a major career change.

“God bless my parents,” she says. “They just had faith that I could do it, despite my poor academic record. And they were right, because I was an academic success at Columbia. It was a matter of focus — born of desperation,” she laughs.

McCann describes doing calculations for chemistry that would fill a couple of pages. She would do the calculation once, which took an hour, then again, which cut the time in half, and then a third time, getting the time down to 15 minutes.

“And then I could get through the test,” she explains. “And one night I was doing that, and I was looking down at the book, and I saw these teardrops falling onto the page because I was so unhappy. Tuning everything else out, putting the blinders on, was for me excruciating. I had chosen this, but it was hard.”

Another pivotal transition was more pleasant. McCann was scrutinizing a posting of examination grades one day when a man approached her and, bold as you please, asked how she had fared. “I was totally appalled that he would invade my privacy that way,” she says. “He was just overtly competitive.”

A native New Yorker and Brown grad, Stephen Meister was a year ahead of McCann at Columbia. He was putting himself through doing pipefitting work with his dad during the summer. If McCann was initially put off by Meister’s competitiveness, the sparks quickly started flying and eventually they worked up to a date.

“It was a funny date,” McCann says. Meister asked her to help him pick out a suit coat — a request that, like retrieval from the airport or help with moving, signifies seriousness about a relationship.

She decided they would start at the top, so as to set a standard for comparison, and took him to Brooks Brothers. “He was wearing jeans, sneakers and a sweater — just a sweater, as far as you could see,” she says.

The salesman suggested that Meister would get a better fit without the sweater. “Underneath he had on this undershirt that he wore when he was arc-welding” on his summer job, McCann says. “It had millions and millions of tiny holes burned in it.”

“The two salesmen from Brooks Brothers didn’t bat an eye,” she says. “But he was mortified, and I was just appalled.” Nevertheless, sparks, etc., and within a year, McCann and Meister had tied the knot.

Considering McCann’s reaction to what she perceived as the rigidity and Darwinism of Bates, it may seem odd that within three years of graduation she hitched her career wagon to the U.S. Navy. But with money tight, it seemed like the best way to get a top-rate medical education. Besides, she laughs, “They definitely had the best-looking uniforms.”

From 1980 into the mid-1990s, McCann and Meister were indentured to Uncle Sam. They attended Tufts on Navy scholarships and repaid the nation through service in San Diego and later in Washington, D.C. McCann served as a staff cardiologist at the National Naval Medical Center and took part in a defense department project adapting high technology to field cardiology. Along the way, the couple had two sons, Liam and Aiden.

In 1996, feeling the need to focus more attention on the boys and with their Navy obligation discharged, the McCann-Meister family moved to Maine. After three years in a solo practice, McCann joined Androscoggin Cardiology. It was the same year Bates Dance Festival Director Laura Faure asked her to join the festival’s advisory board.

“I jumped at the chance,” McCann says. Just like that, McCann was ready to come home to Bates — albeit a different McCann and a different Bates. After all, it’s amazing how priorities change.

Where old Bates once turned down McCann’s offer to make a donation toward establishing a dance major, new home-of-dance-festival Bates accepted it gracefully. And where science students at the old Bates swam or sank, members of the science faculty at the new Bates win awards for their mentoring.

“The campus changed, the faculty’s changed and there have been interesting and positive changes in the attitude toward the community,” McCann says.

As for her, “I think living another lifetime, and finding personal happiness and professional fulfillment, had a lot to do with giving me a different perspective,” Dr. McCann says.

“Reconciliation has a lot to do with time,” she says. “It has a lot to do with not having anything to prove anymore.”