It was Meredith Barnhart’s dream to earn her Ph.D.
After a childhood in Llewellyn, Pennsylvania, and attending Elizabethtown College—only an hour’s drive southwest from Llewellyn down I-81—as an undergraduate, Barnhart moved to New York City to pursue her Master of Social Work from Columbia University. It was a big change. According to UnitedStatesZipCodes.org, Llewellyn has a population of 205.
“Of course we were supportive, but we were worried. It was our daughter,” Colleen Barnhart, Meredith’s mother, said of the move. “But she had such a presence. She went on her own when she was looking for an apartment. We didn’t even have to go with her.”
Barnhart excelled at Columbia and worked as a pediatric oncology social worker at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City for ten years before becoming the Director of the Information Resource Center for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Rye Brook, NY. Along the way, she enrolled in the Fordham Graduate School of Social Service’s doctoral program. She was living out her dream of becoming Dr. Meredith Barnhart.
“I connected with Meredith very early on in her time at Fordham,” Cathy Berkman, Ph.D., professor at GSS, said. “We clicked immediately based on our shared interests in palliative care, but we also had a strong personal bond.”
While at GSS, Barnhart would receive a two-year grant from the American Cancer Society, with the goal of studying the impact of having a parent and child simultaneously in active treatment on family dynamics and structures, accessing treatment, and on the healthcare professionals who support these families. Berkman would serve as Barnhart’s mentor on the grant study.
“I was honored that she asked me to be her mentor,” Berkman said.
The research on parent-child concurrent cancer treatment became Barnhart’s doctoral dissertation — and on April 15, 2020, Barnhart defended her dissertation to her committee. The research was the culmination of her 10+ years of professional experience and intellectual curiosity, dating back to her MSW field education internships in pediatric oncology.
“She was in the living room of her apartment in Mamaroneck, and she had everything all set up to make it look professional,” said Jeff Knapp, Barnhart’s fiancée, of her dissertation defense — held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barnhart’s research was, and, to date, still is — unique. There is no other research published on this topic, with just one case study published about the subject. Barnhart made it her mission to explore and find answers for these families. Although they are rare, their numbers are expected to increase and their needs are complex. It was her passion.
“And then, all of a sudden, after the defense ended, she came barreling into the bedroom,” Knapp continued, “almost knocking down the door, screaming, I’m a doctor!”
Barnhart would go on to graduate in May 2020, earning her Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work degree. She was now Dr. Meredith Barnhart.
“We were absolutely so thrilled,” Colleen Barnhart said. “We couldn’t have been happier for her. It really was a dream come true for her. We used to call her and ask for Dr. Meredith. She really did work very hard.”
However, on September 18, 2020, Knapp received a call from police. They had responded to a 9-1-1 call from Meredith, now living with Jeff in Mahwah, New Jersey. She suffered from shortness of breath, tightness in her chest, and dizziness. She was being taken to the hospital.
Knapp rushed to his car.
“You could tell something was up just by the looks on their faces,” Knapp said of the doctors and nurses who greeted him at the hospital. “You just … you just never know, from one minute to the next.”
Dr. Meredith Barnhart passed suddenly that day, only four months after receiving her Ph.D. She was 37 years-old.
“What we’ve heard so many times over is that you can’t take the next minute for granted,” Knapp said. “You really cannot take one minute of life for granted.”
Although Barnhart’s sudden and tragic death struck at the crescendo of her career, her legacy continues on. Or, as Knapp said, “won’t remain an unfinished symphony”.
This legacy persists through her family, friends, colleagues, her years of love and dedication to the social work profession — and now, through the publishing of Meredith’s academic research, two years after her death. Shortly after Barnhart passed, Fordham GSS professor Dr. Cathy Berkman and Elizabethtown Associate Provost for Institutional Effectiveness and Innovation Dr. Susan Mapp carried on the work of their former student’s dissertation for publication. They had served as Chair and Member, respectively, of Barnhart’s dissertation committee.
The article, titled “When lightning strikes twice: Perceptions of oncology social workers about working with families with two members in treatment” was published in Psycho-Oncology this September, two years to the month after that devastating day in September of 2020.
“Her work was groundbreaking,” Berkman said. “These families with both a parent and child concurrently receiving cancer treatment aren’t common, but a lot of clinicians will treat them throughout their careers. They are very complex and emotionally challenging cases because everything is magnified for that family. Having two family members in treatment is not just double the difficulty. It is exponentially harder.”
Berkman and Mapp are co-authors on this publication.
“Clinicians will see this [paper]and it will give them guidance to better care for these families. It will be the building block for more research in the area,” Berkman said. “Meredith was very smart, hard working, and diligent. It was a joy to be her teacher. I was determined to see her work receive the audience it deserves.”
Barnhart’s family couldn’t be more proud.
“It warms our hearts; it does. Just to know all of that work was never done in vain, and that it’s going to go forward and help others,” Colleen Barnhart said. “She’s not here to do that, but her work is. We’re so appreciative of [Berkman and Mapp’s] efforts, and so proud of Meredith. We are so grateful that she was able to complete this before she passed.”
Not Just a Small-Town Girl
Growing up in mid-western Pennsylvania, Barnhart had a particular penchant for working with children. During breaks from school at Elizabethtown, she would come home and serve as a TA for her mom, Colleen, who was a local elementary school teacher.
“She really did enjoy children,” Colleen said of Meredith. “She was always happy to help me at school with the kids.”
This passion would carry over to Meredith’s college ambitions, as well. While an undergraduate at Elizabethtown, she changed her major from math to social work. When Meredith told Mapp about this switch, Mapp was pleasantly surprised.
“She’s still the only student I know who has ever changed their major from math to social work,” Mapp said.
The relationship between the two flourished, as Barnhart would go on to serve as Mapp’s TA later in her educational career at Elizabethtown. As a senior, Barnhart would complete her field placement at Hershey Medical Center, working as an intern in the hospital’s pediatric oncology department.
Mapp spoke highly of Barnhart’s senior thesis project, in which she surveyed the parents of children receiving cancer treatment to see what they needed for support — to which they responded, not another support group. We don’t want to sit around and talk about our children who have cancer and how that impacts us. We want to be able to think about something else for an hour.
So, Barnhart created spaces for these parents to do activities, such as bingo or crafts. The parents would show up, eager to take their minds off of things for a while. However, it wasn’t long into the activities that they put down whatever they were doing, and spoke to each other about their children.
“She had the grace to recognize what the parents really wanted to do,” Mapp said. “She didn’t step back and say, I put together this arts and crafts activity that you all said you wanted. When the parents would start talking to each other, and drawing that mutual support, she stepped back and let that naturally happen. She had the ability to ask them what they wanted, then to follow through. But when that changed, she let them drive what the needs actually were.”
And so, Barnhart’s career in pediatric oncology had begun.
Balancing Research and Empathy – The Dichotomy of Pediatric Oncology
While Barnhart pursued her higher education dreams, she also was on the ground doing the work. For over ten years, she worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering as a social worker within the hospital’s pediatric oncology unit, where she touched the hearts of many colleagues and patients.
“She was an incredible colleague,” said Donna Siegel, a social worker in the adult leukemia unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering and Barnhart’s close friend. “We actually started emailing each other every morning just to check in, which lasted until her last day. She was an amazing support for me, especially in the first few years at Sloan.”
“She took the time to listen to you,” said Michelle Sanford, now a social work manager at Sloan Kettering, but who worked beside Barnhart in her time at the hospital. “All of the pediatric social workers shared one office, and so it was such a close, tight-knit group. We knew that we could always get support within the office, and she was a big piece of that.”
And Barnhart’s work went beyond the walls of the hospital. Knapp noted that she constantly helped the families of those related to “her kiddos”, as she referred to her patients, with personal items as well.
“There were so many cards that she had from her years at Sloan Kettering from appreciative families for the work that she did,” Knapp said. “Whether it was arranging for a hotel or finding the family places to eat while they were there. She really made an impact. I think that’s what fueled her passion.”
Passion is needed when one is surrounded by such an emotionally charged type of work. Berkman noted that many palliative care and oncology social workers say they could never work with children because it is too difficult. She noted “It takes a very special person, such as Meredith was, to do this work.”
Seeing her impact may have driven Meredith’s work to some extent, but Colleen Barnhart thinks there was also a personal connection pushing her to be her best.
“My sister had been ill at a young age, and my mother was also ill with cancer,” Colleen said. “My first cousin Wendy, a vibrant young woman, developed breast cancer and passed away early. I think these instances may have had some impact on Meredith’s work choices.”
Elisa Weiss, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Patient Access and Outcomes at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) and Barnhart’s former supervisor, said she saw extreme potential in Barnhart and hired her for the position despite being young for the role.
“It was a team of about fifteen at the time when Meredith took on the role,” Weiss said. “She always wanted to learn, and she never took anything personally. I think that’s what makes a good leader. She wanted to be the best at what she did.”
Barnhart led the IRC for four years with a combination of intelligence and compassion. She was a researcher at heart, and thrived on data-driven decisions. But what truly proved her leadership capabilities was her empathy toward her team.
“She had a way about her that made you want to do even better than you thought you could,” said Amy Lane, a Senior Information Specialist in the IRC who worked closely with Barnhart. “She was the first one there and the last one to leave. She changed so many lives.”
An Ongoing Legacy
Dr. Meredith Barnhart inspired, learned from, and cared for many people throughout her academic and professional careers. Patients, colleagues, teachers, and family members all remember her as a caring, compassionate, and extremely intelligent person who made a difference.
Her life’s work will continue to be remembered and will carry on in a multitude of ways. Knapp has worked with Barnhart’s parents to set up multiple endowments and fellowships in Meredith’s name, including at Memorial Sloan Kettering; LLS; Elizabethtown; Minersville, Meredith’s high school; and Fordham GSS.
“Through the Meredith J. Barnhart, Ph.D., GSS ‘20 Memorial Endowed Scholarship, [Meredith’s] legacy will live on well into the future,” said Debra McPhee, Ph.D., dean of GSS. “This Scholarship will enable generations of students to earn an MSW and make a meaningful difference in the lives of the vulnerable individuals, families, and communities they will serve.”
Colleen Barnhart said Knapp has been instrumental in this process and in helping her and husband Bob heal after the loss of their daughter.
“When we met him, I said to [Meredith], he’s a keeper,” Colleen said. “We could not have asked for a better person for her to marry. We could not have wished for a better person to help us through this ordeal after she passed. He has been wonderful.”
“We’re just doing what we think she would have wanted in so many ways,” Knapp said. “The money just could have sat there in a bank. But we’ve been very selective and targeting things that meant the most to her, and we hope that this will benefit pediatric oncology and social work.”
As for the personal impact she’s had on those around her, Dr. Meredith Barnhart was a gift.
“I guess the right word would be gift,” said Amy Lane when describing Meredith. “You only have a handful of people in your life that completely change it for the better. She made all the difference in my life, and made me a better person. She had it all. I just feel privileged to have had the time I had with her.”