CLEVELAND, Ohio – Dr. Robert M. Eiben, a physician whose own childhood disease never kept him from aiding thousands of children during his more than four-decade-long medical career, died Dec. 28 at his home in Lakewood at age 91.
Eiben was born with a congenital heart defect that left him frail, but determined to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. He struggled with the physical limitations of the defect until he had open heart surgery at age 37.
The award-winning doctor’s life included roles as a treatment specialist for patients with polio and childhood neurological disorders, a teacher of future medical professionals, and a father to six children and 12 stepchildren.
Eiben received his medical degree from the Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve University) School of Medicine in 1946. That same year he married his first wife, Dorothy, and they raised six children.
He was hired by Dr. John Toomey, director of infectious diseases in the department of pediatrics, at City Hospital (what is now the MetroHealth Medical Center).
After Toomey’s death in 1950, Eiben replaced him as director, and served at the Toomey Pavilion, one of 15 regional respiratory and rehabilitation centers in the country treating polio patients. In a 1959 edition of the facility’s newsletter, one person who had received care at the Pavilion wrote, “Dr. Eiben does not treat only the disease, he treats the patient.”
For his efforts, Eiben became known as "Greater Cleveland's Polio Doc." But with advent of the Salk polio vaccine, the patient load diminished and Eiben accepted a fellowship in pediatric neurology at the University of Washington in 1959.
He returned to MetroHealth in 1963 to lead efforts in children’s neurology, particularly research relating to cognitive and brain-related challenges faced by low-weight babies. He was appointed director of child neurology and worked there until his retirement in 1990.
During that time Eiben served as acting chief of the Clinical Investigations and Therapeutics, Developmental and Metabolic Neurology branch of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes from 1976-1977.
In 1981, he married his second wife, Anne, who had 12 children from her first marriage.
Additionally, Eiben served as a professor of pediatric neurology at his alma mater. His honors include the Robert M. Eiben Lectureship in Pediatric neurology established at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine in 2008.
He also was recognized by the Fourth International Congress of Poliomyelitis for his work on respiratory centers, inducted into MetroHealth’s Hall of Honor, and served multiple leadership roles (including president) of the Child Neurology Society.
In 1991, a year into retirement, Eiben reflected on his career in a newspaper story.
“Fate deals so many assists or blocks in your plans that I find it’s a little bit of chance or good fortune that you end up doing what you do,” he said. “I feel I’ve been very, very lucky.
“Honest to goodness, it’s a privilege to be a doctor, because people are entrusting to you and your judgment,” he added. “That’s the reward in medicine.”
Eiben is survived by his sister, Rita E. Broestl, his six children – Daniel, Christopher (Jayne), Thomas (Jan), Mary (George) Balbo, Charles (Leslie) and Lisa – and 12 Balbo stepchildren: Peter (Maria), Marianne (John) Karaffa, Ruth Kahalsa, Janne (Marshall) Bissett, Martha (Patrick) O’Leary, George (Mary), Jack, Susan (Kevin) Kelley, Mark (Zina), Thomas, Joseph (Sheila), and Constance (Larry).
The family will greet visitors from 3-7 p.m. on Jan. 3 at the McGorray-Hanna Funeral Home, 14133 Detroit Avenue, in Lakewood. The funeral will be at 10 a.m. on Jan. 4 in the Cathedral of St. John, 1007 Superior Avenue East, in downtown Cleveland.
Plain Dealer News Researcher Jo Ellen Corrigan contributed to this story.
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