When she was little, Dr. Grace S. Wolff dreamed of becoming a priest. When the nuns at her school told her she couldn’t be one because she was a girl, she brushed it off and decided she would become a doctor instead. By age 11, Wolff knew that her purpose was to help people — and that is exactly what she did.
The late pediatric cardiologist completed her fellowship at Harvard University’s Boston Children’s Hospital before joining the University of Miami medical school. Throughout her career, Wolff pioneered diagnostic procedures and treatments for various heart conditions, contributing her knowledge to the American Board of Pediatrics (ABP).
“She was so close to her patients that she would accompany a sick patient to the Mayo Clinic if she had to. You don’t get that kind of dedication in just anybody,” said a colleague and friend of Wolff’s, Dr. Dolores Tamer.
A prominent figure in the pediatric community, Wolff did not intend to marry. In fact, it was out of the question. Taking care of children was her passion, her priority — until she met Armando Perez.
“She said she had always wanted somebody — a nice person to go to dinner and go to the movies with, but not to marry. But through my perseverance, I convinced her that we could have a loving relationship and a marriage, and at the same time she could take care of sick children. In fact, the things would be synergistic,” said Perez, a retired environmental engineer.
So when Wolff, 77, died in 2015 of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), it was Perez’s turn to become inspired. While rifling through his wife’s old photos and notes, Perez decided to mourn his loss in a different way — by writing “Mending Children’s Broken Hearts,” a book about Wolff’s life work.
“I think an important thing in the book is to give comfort to the families and make them feel less anxious. And especially give comfort to the mothers — a lot of mothers, [Wolff] said, felt guilty in that they felt they had passed on a genetic defect to their child,” said Perez, 72.
Wolff believed that tending to the emotional trauma that comes with being a sick child (or a family member of a sick child) was just as important as the actual treatments her patients received. With each patient, Wolff used her affectionate personality and spiritual nature to make their time in the hospital as stress-free as possible.
“She brought a lot of class to the department in Miami. She was honest to a fault, very intelligent and tried to know everything that could help her patients,” Tamer said. “She was a role model to just about everybody. I wasn’t able to keep up in her saintliness, but I admired it.”
As Wolff navigated the highs and lows of her career, so, too, did Perez alongside of her.
Among Wolff’s many success stories, Perez looked fondly on that of Frank Conklin’s — a Key Largo firefighter and electrician who came to Wolff at 3 years old with aortic stenosis, a condition that inhibits the blood-flow from the left ventricle into the aorta.
“My parents didn’t have money or health insurance back then, so Dr. Wolff kind of wore all the hats. She got us through the financial burden. When we closed the door in the exam room, I felt like I was her only patient. She took more time than she probably needed to hear a personal story. It’s like we had our own heart cardiologist in the family,” Conklin said.
Conklin’s relationship with his life-long doctor was so strong that during Wolff’s final months, he sat at her bedside day after day, holding her hand and thanking her for her many years of service and friendship. So when Conklin got his hands on Perez’s finished book, he said “it was like Christmas morning.”
“I am very touched by the fact that Armando, despite his pain, decided to do this — to put the book together. It must have taken a lot of time to compile notes, to write them down. If you see the book, you’ll see what I mean,” said Wolff and Perez’s long-time friend, Blanca Silva.
The book not only serves as a source of comfort for families with sick children, but it also brings Perez peace in coping with Wolff’s death.
By delving deeper into her work than he ever had before, Perez said he learned about “handling misfortune with a positive spirit.”
“I feel very, very honored that I was her life companion,” he said. “I am very privileged, and so I thought the least I could do to honor her was to write a book.”