When family and friends from across the globe had a question they needed answered, Rosalind “Babsie” Chesler doled out pragmatic advice from a treasure trove of knowledge gained through 40 years of clinical practice.
Chesler, who overcame many obstacles, including losing a parent when young, being discriminated against in medical school, escaping apartheid and eventually treating the most needy at Children’s Hospital of St. Paul, died May 4 of complications from lupus. She was 81.
“[Medicine] was her calling,” said her oldest son, Alan Chesler. “She was never interested in what she was being paid, or if she was being paid. It was really more about taking care of kids.”
Born in 1934 in South Africa, Chesler was forced to grow up quickly. In the span of only a few months, the then 16-year-old lost her father and moved to Johannesburg to attend college. She also had to switch languages from Afrikaans to English when she arrived at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Chesler came from a prominent Jewish family that had lost several members during the Holocaust. Jews continued to face intense discrimination at the time in South Africa and, as a Jewish woman, Chesler was even more of a target in medical school.
“They didn’t like either of those things,” said Alan Chesler, recounting the time his mother was forced to sit on a stool at the front of the class after she’d stayed awake two straight days studying, just so she’d fall off and embarrass herself.
But that didn’t keep her from falling in love with a budding cardiologist, Elliot Chesler, during their first year of schooling. They would later marry.
After graduation, Chesler practiced community medicine and hospital-based pediatrics in the wards of three hospitals in South Africa.
“She’d do anything for someone, especially for a disadvantaged patient,” said Chesler’s youngest son, Louis. “She faultlessly did that. Almost on principle she would do this energetically.”
Louis Chesler, who became a pediatric oncologist, attributes much of his passion for medicine from observing his mother at work. One of his first memories of science was watching nuns streak Petri dishes at the rural Catholic missions hospital. So once he went to medical school for himself, it was only natural to call his mother for help on difficult cases in his textbook.
“She’d seen literally every disease you can think of,” he said. “She had a quiet, yet very industrious desire to help people.”
Alan and Louis Chesler came of age during the violent years of apartheid and their parents grew wary about the family’s safety. Elliot Chesler had publicly spoken out against the system of racial segregation, while she broke the law in more silent ways.
A 16-year-old Zulu boy was a live-in worker for the family, and although strict rules prohibited certain privileges for him, Chesler allowed him to swim in their pool, arranged for him to take English classes and gave him the occasional shot of penicillin so he didn’t have to wait hours at the hospital.
Her generosity, in part, led to visits from police, and it became clear that the family needed to get out of the country. St. Paul, where Elliot did his postgraduate training, seemed the best bet for a new life, so the family left for the United States in 1977.
At 45, Chesler had to re-educate herself to continue practicing medicine in America while raising her sons. She spent more than 20 years at Children’s Hospital before retiring to San Antonio to be closer to her grandchildren.
In addition to her two sons, Chesler is survived by husband Elliot and four grandchildren.
Services have been held.