Dr. Alex Azar remembered for medical brilliance

Dr. Alex Azar, one of the community’s top doctors, died last Monday at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury.

Dr. Alex Azar was remembered this week for his intense personality, brilliance as a physician, attention to each and every patient’s needs, and devotion to the Salisbury medical community.

The founder of the Azar Eye Institute died last Monday at Peninsula Regional Medical Center at the age of 80.

“He was a great person to work with and a great person to know,” said Barbara Parker, who served as Azar’s assistant for the past 40 years.

“It was a great privilege to know him and an honor to be great friends. I had a great deal of respect for him and he had respect for his staff and patients,” she said. “That word means a lot nowadays, because you see so little of it.”

He had been in declining health in recent years, having undergone a  kidney transplant in 2014.

Azar practiced ophthalmology on the Eastern Shore for more than 40 years and taught medical students at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for 20 years. 

“Alex could be rough and tough but inside he had a heart of gold. He genuinely cared for his patients and treated them like family,” said Jane Klemick-Filipov, whose husband worked as a medical practice partner for many years.

“He never turned a patient away for any reason. He was forward thinking and fair. He inspired confidence in all who knew him,” Klemick-Filipov said.

Azar began practicing ophthalmology in Salisbury with Dr. Robert Dickey in 1976, the same year he introduced microscopic eye surgery to Peninsula Regional Medical Center, performing the first intraocular lens implant and the first trabeculectomy for glaucoma.

He earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, and followed medical school with a brief stint in the U.S. Army as a general medical officer, before completing a residency in preventive medicine at The Ohio State University.

He worked with the development of gas permeable contact lenses which was the catalyst for his return to OSU to complete a residency in ophthalmology.

Azar also pursued work as an environmental researcher at DuPont Co., where he published more than 30 scientific research papers, which included a treatment plan for people exposed to the toxic missile propellant used in the Titan missile system.

He received the Allan D. Jensen Part-Time Faculty Teaching award in 2011, nominated for the award by medical students attending the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins.

More recently, he enjoyed teaching in the Physician Assistant program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and volunteering at the MAC Center in Salisbury.

Azar was also Board Certified in Preventive Medicine and is listed in the guide to America’s Top Ophthalmologists. He was the first health care professional appointed to the Maryland Health Care Access and Cost Commission by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

He was a member of the Board of Directors of the local YMCA, the Board of the Three Lower Counties, the Center for a Health MD, and the local Humane Society.

He also served as treasurer of the Camp Horizon Board of Directors, was deeply involved with the Greater Salisbury Committee and was a 32nd Degree Mason in Wicomico Lodge No. 91.

When he moved to Salisbury, he joined St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Later, he served on the Pastoral Relations Committee at Trinity United Methodist Church.

“Dr. Azar leaves behind a tremendous legacy,” said Mike Dunn, President and CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee. “He was a giver, a caregiver. Dr. Azar helped us re-launch our GSC Foundation efforts about two years ago. His passion for this organization, for his family and for his community was inspiring to all.”

Azar was an active member of the medical staff at PRMC and worked to help introduce the concept of block posting to the operating room, and to have specialized nursing units in the hospital.  As secretary of the medical staff, he was very much involved in convincing the board to purchase the first CAT scan unit on the Eastern Shore.

“The PRMC Medical Staff lost one of its long time leaders with the passing of Alex,” said Dr. C.B. Sylvia, the hospital’s Chief of Medicine.

“He was a driving force in the development of ophthalmology care for PRMC and our whole community. We have to thank Alex for showing us the way.”

Despite a busy schedule, Azar enjoyed making house calls in the evenings. He was particularly good with following up with his one-eyed post-operative patients. He thought nothing of traveling from Georgetown to Snow Hill. Each month, he went to Crisfield to change the contact lens on a patient — he even performed eye surgery on a patient in a rocking chair on the man’s porch on Smith Island.

Parker, Azar’s assistant, said his rapport with those who worked for and around him was always special. A longtime employee agreed.

“Dr. Azar was the best person to talk to, not only when you needed a good laugh, but also if you had something personal going on,” said Tammy Jones Donaway, who formerly worked at the Azar Eye Institute.

“He just knew that something wasn’t right, and he would do whatever it took to fix it. I loved to hear him snort when he laughed, because it was a good indicator of the mood that he was in. … I truly loved working for him, and looked to him as I would my own father or grandfather.”

Known for giving and never seeking recognition, he was instrumental in establishing the George Patterson Scholarship Fund at Trinity United Methodist Church. He was publicly lauded for his contribution to the first coronary care unit at PRMC.  Other philanthropic endeavors included the medical student scholarship program at Pitt Medical School and corneal research projects at Wilmer.

He was also a primary supporter of the Horizons Program. He remained affiliated with PRMC long after retirement, just because he wanted to be available to help whenever needed.

Born May 4, 1939, in Johnstown, Pa., his parents were the late Michael and Sadie Namey Azar. 

He graduated from Westmont Hilltop High School in 1957 and attended University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown for three years prior to accepting an early admission to Pitt’s Medical School, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1964 and was a member of Alpha Omega.

He is survived by two children, Alex Michael Azar II and Stacy Azar Dunne, from his previous marriage to Lynda Azar.

He is also survived by  two stepchildren, Michael Casey Hoch and Corey James Hoch; nine grandchildren and step-grandchildren; a sister, Mary Abdallah; and several nieces and nephews.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his three older brothers, John, Jackie and George Azar. His wife, Wilma Shockley Hoch Azar, died in 2017, after 26 years of marriage. 

His son has been in the national spotlight in recent weeks, serving as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and helping lead the government’s efforts in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

The family will hold private graveside services at Parsons Cemetery in Salisbury. A funeral Service will be held at Trinity United Methodist Church at a later date. 

Arrangements are in the care of Holloway Funeral Home in Salisbury.

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