Sandra Dombroski Fritsch, 72, of Chestnut Hill, a psychologist who lived with Parkinson’s disease for 23 years and drew on her insights to become a source of support for other patients, died Sunday, Jan. 13, at her home.
Her husband, Kilian, said the cause of death was complications from Parkinson’s.
Dr. Fritsch got the diagnosis on Good Friday 1996, when she was 49. She was crushed. “My body had always been a source of pride,” she told the Inquirer. “I was a natural athlete who could do anything – running, swimming, tennis, golf, horseback riding.”
She was scared, angry, and depressed. Then she threw herself into a frenzy of activity, as if that could keep the disease at bay. She rode horses, dug a garden, played tennis several times a day.
“I was afraid to sit still,” she said. “I was afraid I’d turn rigid.”
In time, the panic subsided, and medicine eased the symptoms. Dr. Fritsch began to realize the illness would not claim her overnight.
She refused to let Parkinson’s become the dominant theme in her life. “I will carry my cross with as much dignity as I can while having as much fun as I can,” she said.
She stayed active, but without the manic urgency. She came to terms with her disease and even viewed it as a blessing. Each moment of life felt more vivid after the diagnosis. “Something like this collapses time,” she said.
Starting in 1996, Dr. Fritsch became involved with the Dan Aaron Parkinson’s Rehabilitation Center in the Movement Disorders Unit at Pennsylvania Hospital, first as a support group leader and facilitator, and later as the first therapist to provide counseling for Parkinson’s patients, and their spouses and families.
She helped families redefine life with the disease so that it didn’t engulf them. She became a valued member of the treatment team, said Howard I. Hurtig, a Pennsylvania Hospital neurologist who worked with Dr. Fritsch.
“She was such a courageous human being, and an important partner in the early development of our Parkinson’s disease program,” he said in an email. “I cherish the memories of her positive outlook and how she shared her patient-centered philosophy with others, not only with her loving, personal touch, but as our center’s first psychological counselor."
She retired in 2010.
Born in Nanticoke, Luzerne County, Dr. Fritsch graduated from St. Ann’s Academy in Wilkes-Barre, and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., a master’s degree in experimental psychology from Villanova University, and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.
She trained at the Gestalt Institute of New York and the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. She was a staff psychologist at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic and director of the mental health clinic at St. Vincent’s Home for Children in Southwest Philadelphia.
After marrying Kilian Fritsch in 1980, she devoted herself to the couple’s two daughters. She was involved in their educational experiences and took a leadership role on school projects.
Since 1987, Dr. Fritsch had enjoyed spending time at her family’s property on the Susquehanna River in Bradford County. She developed many friendships in the Wyalusing area, and spearheaded a project to bring maple syrup produced by a local farm to the Weavers Way cooperative in Northwest Philadelphia.
She played tennis at the Philadelphia Cricket Club and rode horses in Philadelphia, as well as in Bradford County. When her grandsons came along, she delighted in their company. She was never without a dog.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by daughters Sasha Kone and Triona Dombroski-Fritsch.; two grandsons; and a brother.
A graveside service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, at the Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve, 293 Irish Hill Rd., Newfield, N.Y. There will be a memorial gathering at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3. at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, 20 E. Mermaid Lane.