Stephanie Azar, multitalented med student

O-SSTEPH24-a It shows Stephanie Yen-Mun Liem Azar, 26, of Haverford, a talented musician who was training as a physician. Behind her in the photo is the famed Curtis Organ at the Curtis Institute of Music. Credit: The Liem family.
O-SSTEPH24-a It shows Stephanie Yen-Mun Liem Azar, 26, of Haverford, a talented musician who was training as a physician. Behind her in the photo is the famed Curtis Organ at the Curtis Institute of Music. Credit: The Liem family.
Posted: July 26, 2013

Stephanie Yen-Mun Liem Azar was used to being told she was too young to do something.

Too young at age 6 to learn to play a church organ. Too young at 16 to leave her family in Haverford and live on her own in Philadelphia while attending the Curtis Institute of Music. Too young at 20 for medical school.

Her parents, Gie and Lisa Liem, discovered early on that they couldn't slow her down.

She accomplished those goals, and much more, before she did something that was tragically premature.

She died Friday, July 19, at New York Presbyterian Hospital, five days after her 26th birthday, not quite four weeks after hundreds of family and friends gathered to celebrate her marriage to Pablo Azar, a computer scientist she met at Harvard University.

The cause of death is unclear. She was diagnosed with an aggressive pneumonia, but was responding well to treatment by doctors from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she was in her third year of medical school. Then, suddenly, she developed massive brain swelling.

"It's not understood, but whatever it was, it was cataclysmic," said Stephen Nicholas, the medical school's dean of admissions.

The Rev. Judith Sullivan, dean of Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, who presided at Mrs. Azar's wedding and was at her deathbed, this week planned her funeral. "The juxtaposition of going from so much joy to so much grief so fast, the shock is incredible," Sullivan said.

Echoing others who knew Mrs. Azar, Nicholas called her "this spunky, thoughtful, talented, highly empathetic individual who was quite self-disciplined - which you have to be as a musician."

Mrs. Azar was raised in a highly educated, cosmopolitan family and often spent Christmas in Hong Kong, her mother's hometown. But Mrs. Azar's musical talent did not run in the family, said her father, who owns a hotel management company.

Her parents watched proudly as she mastered the piano and violin beginning at age 4. By age 6, she was nagging the organist at the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr - namely, Michael Stairs of the Philadelphia Orchestra - to teach her that instrument.

"Every Sunday after the postlude, she'd come up and say, 'Can I study the organ?' " recalled Stairs. "I'd say, 'No, your legs aren't long enough to reach the pedals.' "

The installation of an organ with an adjustable bench solved that problem a few years later.

At 15, on the cusp of early graduation from Friends Central High School, she auditioned and was accepted at Curtis, the nation's most selective conservatory. Her parents drove her to her allotted organ practice hours - between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

"Stephanie said, 'Dad, I appreciate what you're doing, but this isn't working,' " Liem said. "Curtis didn't have a dorm then, so she convinced us to find a place for her in town."

Her Center City apartment was where she baked goodies for students' weekly performance class, an otherwise stressful time, said Curtis' organ department chair, Alan Morrison.

"She was a firecracker," he said.

When she was 17, Mrs. Azar's studies, which included courses at the University of Pennsylvania, were interrupted by a neurological problem that caused severe tremors. Doctors concluded, after months of tests, that she'd had a stroke, a complication of an unrecognized congenital heart defect.

The tremors were controlled by the surgical implantation of an electrical stimulator in her brain. By then, she was advocating for people with movement disorders, giving speeches and benefit concerts.

"That freak stroke. Then the brain stimulation. What a brave gal," said Stairs. "She could still play the organ, but that's when she decided she wanted to help people. She wanted to go into medicine."

Because she needed premed science - and because an adviser persuaded her to wait on medical school - the 20-year-old Curtis graduate took courses at Harvard University. She met Azar, and they became inseparable. Eventually, they added two cats.

In preparation for their wedding reception at the Please Touch Museum, the couple took dance lessons, even though by then Azar was commuting to New York on weekends from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where he is finishing his doctorate.

"We made the time to be together," he said. "We had a lot of fun. We laughed so much. She made me laugh all the time. These are moments I will remember."

Azar said his wife had been mulling a medical specialty. Meanwhile, said Nicholas, the admissions dean, she "aggressively went after what would make her a good physician." For example, she took a course that combined intensive Spanish language training with volunteer work in a medical clinic in a poor Hispanic neighborhood.

"She was," her father said, "a ridiculous planner all her life."

The day after she died, her parents discovered she had thoughtfully planned even for the unthinkable.

Her doctors asked the Liems for permission to perform an autopsy so they could understand and learn from her case. That's when an uncle in California, a pediatrician, forwarded an e-mail she had sent from the intensive care unit.

"She e-mailed him, 'If for some reason I don't pull through, urge them to do an autopsy,' " her father said.

In addition to her husband and parents, Mrs. Azar is survived by a brother, Jasper, and her maternal grandparents.

A service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 27, at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 3723 Chestnut St. Memorial contributions may be made to the cathedral, Curtis, or the Please Touch Museum.


Contact Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or mmccullough@phillynews.com.

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