On Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022, Roberta McNeill Smith, MD, devoted wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and physician, passed away at the age of 82, having been surrounded by family and friends in the weeks preceding her death.
Roberta, known as “Berta” to her friends, was born on May 25, 1940 in Columbia, South Carolina, the only child of Sophia Roberta Castine and William James McNeill. Her mother was a nurse, and her father a head bank teller.
Berta wanted to be a doctor for as long as she could remember. After visiting the campus of Duke University in the winter of her Junior year at Dreher High School in Columbia, she was challenged by a friend to apply and pursue her dream. While she was an excellent student (she earned the superlatives ‘Most Athletic’ and ‘Most Intellectual’ in her senior year), she doubted Duke would accept her and applied to prove this to her friend. She was, in fact, accepted. She attended with partial scholarship and began her pre-med journey. Tragedy struck in the middle of her second year when her mother fell ill with severe valvular heart disease as a result of rheumatic fever as a child. Berta took a train home to see her and was able to spend a brief time with her before she passed as they were holding hands. The loss turned her away from wanting to become a physician for nearly a year before she refocused and made up the required work. It also laid the foundation for her amazing skill for helping families through loss that she would become known for years later. She graduated with a degree in Psychology in 1962. When applying for medical school at Duke, she recalled that she was roundly discouraged by the ‘Dean of Men’ through whom all applications flowed and who believed that women should be focused on marriage and children or a career in nursing. After his refusal to assist with her application, she processed it on her own and was one of 4 women to be accepted into a class of 80. In 1966, she graduated with a Doctorate of Medicine degree and achieved the first major milestone of her dream. The journey had just begun.
In her second year of medical school, Berta began dating fellow medical student David Smith. They soon shared an apartment and married in their junior year so that they could continue to work together as they pursued additional training. The couple found internships at the Medical College of Virginia and moved to Richmond where they would each complete residency programs. Berta finished a three-year residency in Pediatrics as Chief Resident and joined as a part time faculty member at MCV for another three years. During this time, they had their first child. Two additional children would be born during this chapter, however, the first of the two had a lethal abnormality and died at 28 weeks. The lack of emotional care that was so common at the time made this a seminal moment for Berta who, in her own words, “learned everything not to do”, and it cemented her lifelong dedication to extend her care full circle to include not only the patient but counseling and supporting family members as well. The family’s next move was a short two years in Charleston, South Carolina to fulfill David’s Naval obligations under the Berry Plan. There they had their third son. They returned to Duke University Medical Center for three years, and Berta became part of the Junior Faculty in the department of Perinatal Neonatal Medicine. It was there she discovered two mentors in the neonatology program who greatly influenced her. In 1977, the family moved to Savannah, Georgia, where she would give birth to her youngest son and make her home for the remainder of her life.
In Savannah, Berta joined a young neonatologist, Dr. Brenda Marino, at what was then a fledgling neonatal nursery. After Dr. Marino’s departure in 1982, Berta carried the responsibility of being the sole neonatologist for six months before being joined by Dr. Linda Sacks in 1983. The pair were a great match and traded coverage around the clock, over time growing the staff and services of the department, eventually culminating in the only Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Southeast Georgia, serving 24 surrounding counties. She was instrumental in developing the Neonatal Perinatal Outreach Education Program utilizing Neonatologists, Nurse Educators, Social Workers and Dieticians to visit, evaluate and train staff of the surrounding hospitals within the referral area. She was the Faculty Developer for Perinatal Update, which became a 35-year program, at one time the largest perinatal neonatal education program in the area, attracting as many as 600 learners. She developed a program for certifying specific nurses to do procedures including resuscitation, intubation, radial artery stick, and diagnosis and needle aspiration of pneumothorax. She was also Faculty Supervisor for development of the Neonatal Transport Team.
Over the 25 years of her career at Memorial Medical Center, she and her team saved countless lives and made an incredible impact on the broader community through their service to others. Their stories are endless, and their camaraderie was legendary. One of her favorite events was the Annual NICU Valentine’s Reunion. She and her team hosted this party for ‘graduates’ of the unit and their families. Nowhere could more smiles and embraces be found as they celebrated the lives of those who had passed through their doors and been the object of their devoted care. Another of Berta’s favorites was her annual holiday plum pudding party. She would toil for hours in the kitchen to prepare each batch before opening her home filled with holiday decorations. The stories and laughter shared amongst the team were magic for her soul.
Outside of the world of direct patient care, Berta devoted herself to many other programs in the medical community and beyond. She was a founding member of the Georgia Perinatal Society and served as Secretary/Treasurer, Vice-President, and President. She was also a founding member of the BioEthics Committee at Memorial and remained on the committee until her retirement in 2001. Her board participations included the Executive Advisory Board of the Junior League of Savannah, The Ronald McDonald House Board of Directors, Children’s Miracle Network Advisory Board, Memorial Medical Center Children’s Hospital Physician Advisory Board, as well as many others. Despite never seeking accolades, she was the recipient of many awards, including a Physician Lifetime Achievement Award at Memorial and an award for Outstanding Contributions to Mothers and Children by Maternal & Child Health, Family Planning, Children with Special Health Care Needs, 21st Annual Region IV Conference.
Post retirement, Berta continued to fill her schedule with work as a teacher. She remained an Associate Clinical Professor with the Medical College of Georgia and Mercer University. She absolutely loved mentoring first year medical students and passing on all the knowledge gained throughout her career.
The rigors of Berta’s profession presented a constant challenge for available time at home where she was a mother to four boys and a wife to another physician whose work involved similar demands. She often worried about this aloud. How she found the additional energy to pull it off, we’ll never know, but she was an exceptional mother. Where her schedule lacked large quantities of available time, she brought quality and focus. She made the time for play and was ever present at school events and extra-curricular activities. She was often gentle, yet fierce when needed. She raised her boys in the same tradition of the church she knew as a child, and her example of kindness and respect for others permeates their lives. Berta was further challenged when her eldest son, Jason, at the age of 12 was critically injured in a biking accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Had it not been for her ironclad resolve and unrelenting dedication to her boys, the tragedy would have been insurmountable. She rose to every single challenge to restore her eldest son’s life and maintain a sense of normalcy for her other children. Slowly over time, day by day, and step by step, she kept it together. Many wonderful memories were woven into the family’s lives in the following years. Berta carefully planned every detail of two major family vacations that were highlights for everyone. The first was a northwest tour that included a multi-day raft trip down the Salmon River in Idaho and visiting Yellowstone National Park. The second was focused on the major national parks in the southwest a couple of years later. These created lifelong memories of adventure for her entire family and were among her favorites.
In 1998, Berta was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. She endured surgery, chemotherapy, and a grueling recovery. When cancer does not end in death, it very often results in a re-birth of sorts, and this was very much the case for Berta. She re-evaluated and re-invented her life. With all the boys now gone from home, she and David amicably ended their marriage and remained friends. She also gave serious consideration to her retirement for the first time. The bright spot in the middle of this terrible chapter of her journey was her friend, Judith Kessler, who provided the needed support for Berta through the tribulations of cancer. They went as a pair to chemotherapy sessions and took walks after treatments, discussing their lives and what the future held. Over time they grew closer and eventually fell in love.
The ensuing 22 years were wonderful for the pair. With the demands of full-time medicine behind her, Berta was able to spend time doing her three favorite things: photography, traveling with Judith, and enjoying their 7 grandchildren. They adopted the names Granny and Gigi, sometimes affectionately known as “the two Grands”. The pool they put in at their Whitmarsh Island home became the centerpiece of family visits. They planted two oak trees, several blueberry bushes, and a fig tree. Their home became an oasis for themselves and all visitors. In between, they travelled all over the US, took a cruise to Alaska, and explored three rivers in Europe on a Viking River Cruise. In 2013, they ran away to New York and were married. Ever since, they have taken care of each other and embraced a wonderful connection that was obvious to everyone around them.
Like her father before her, Berta was diagnosed with Parkinson disease. Later on she developed macular degeneration and eventually lost most of her eyesight, however, she never complained. She was gracious, funny, and loving to the very end. In the final weeks of her life, she remained at home with Judith. She visited with dozens of friends and old co-workers who came to see her and once more share stories, smiles and heartfelt goodbyes. All her boys, their spouses, and many of her grandchildren were able to spend time with her. In the very end, she rested in the arms of the love of her life, Judith. Berta’s boys will forever be in debt to Judith for the way she loved and took care of their mother. Berta had a beautiful and inspiring life. And she will be missed.
Berta is survived by her wife, Judith S. Kessler, her son Jason and his wife Karen, her son Stephen and his wife Alissa, their children, Elizabeth and Matthew, her son Andrew and his wife Andrea, their children, Winslow and Oscar, her son Peter and his husband Chris, and their children, Marianna, Jasper and Nicolo, her ex-husband David and his wife Maureen.
A visitation will be held at Fox & Weeks Hodgson Chapel at 4 pm on Thursday, August 18th. Services will be held at Asbury Memorial Church at noon on Friday, August 19th with a reception to follow after the internment. In lieu of flowers, donations could be made to Asbury or charity of choice.
Nothing but fond memories of Roberta and the Smiths during their years on James Island. Remarkable woman - thanks for sharing her with the world. Love from the Glaze crew, Brenda Glaze (Pendleton, SC) Lee Glaze (Sumter, SC) Lane Glaze (Clemson, SC) Gettys Glaze (Charleston, SC)
- Lane Glaze, Clemson, SC
- John and Cherie Dekle, Savannah, Ga
DEEPEST CONDOLENCES: A very tireless woman who had a life well lived. Thanks for the body of work you have left. God Bless each of you.
- Anne and Barry Cobb, Guyton, Georgia
Judith so sorry for your loss and the family loss she now an Angel being bless by God
- David E. Grice, Pooler, GA
Berta was my first cousin, two days older than I. We spent many happy hours together in Columbia, often playing tennis on Saturdays in high school. My thoughts and prayers are with the whole family. Retain your fond, loving memories, despite your loss.
- Bill Castine, Gainesville, FL
What a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary woman. Betta had an incredible life, with a beautiful, bright and giving spirit that will stay with all those who knew her forever.
- Renee DeRossett, Tybee Island, Ga
I’m so sorry for your loss. Dr. Smith was there when I started my neonatal career and taught me so much. She always had incredible stories to tell. It was always so evident that she loved what she did. She was a remarkable person that will be missed by many.
- Bonnie Maynor, Savannah , Georgia
Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful life of an incredibly special lady…. I will never forget when she came into labor with me (in 1977) while I was giving birth to my first child and asked me if I needed a hand to hold…..which I did!!! She will always have a huge place in my heart! What a difference she has made for our world! Such an amazing and inspiring life! I send prayers and love to all of her family. Jan and Michael Curran
- Jan Curran, Savannah, Ga
My condolences to all of Berta’s family and friends. She was an amazing person and gave so much to the world.
- Becky Lacy, Savannah , GA
May perpetual light shine upon you my sweet friend Roberta. May many many joyful memories comfort your family in love and happy times for years to come. Dr. Roberta M. Smith, a medical iconoclast; it was a privilege to know you Bert, safe journey. Big Love Always, Julia B
- Julia Catherine Bremer , Savannah , Georgia
My thoughts and prayers go to the family of a wonderful woman who gave of herself tirelessly for her community. A giant in her profession and a compassionate human being! We will miss you Berta, but will cherish you forever.
- Capt. P. Michelle Gillikin, Tybee Island , Georgia
I just heard of Berta’s passing. My heart goes out to her family and Judith. I remember her great laugh and her love for all of the children she cared for. She was a pioneer in her field and a wonderful woman.
- Linnie Youngblood, Englewood, Florida
- Mark and Lynn Fortune, CARDALE, MB, Canada
I am saddened to learn of Roberta’s passing. Not only was she a devoted physician, but a wonderful human being. As chaplain at Memorial I knew her well both as a colleague and personal friend. It was a honor to know her in our work together in establishing the ethics program at Memorial, and developing many of the ethics educational programs. In addition I worked closely with her and her colleagues and saw first hand her deep devotion as a physician which was accompanied by her sensitivity as a human being. I was honored to also share in her personal life, and was pleased to perform the wedding for Jason and Karen. I will always remember Berta as a colleague and friend. All she did was wrapped in a deep caring and compassionate humanity that is far too rare in our world today. May her soul with the souls of all the faithful departed in the mercy of God rest in peace.
- John Anderson, Savannah, Georgia
My Deepest Condolences To Judith And Family. May She Forever Rest In The Arms Of Our Lord And Savior. Rest In Peace Dr. Smith
- Louis Jean Suze, Richmond Hill , GA
So very sorry for your loss. As a new RN in Newborn Nursery 1979, Dr Smith was a veritable font of information. She was patient with my questions and enjoyed passing on her limitless knowledge. Even though I would not work in the NICU until 1984 and in Augusta, her words, kindness, humor and caring stayed with me throughout my nursing career.
- Rindy Denmark, Garden City , Georgia
I worked with Roberta for 10 years. She was a great neonatologist and person. Always caring and available. She will be missed
- gary oakes, savannah, ga
I worked with Roberta for 10 years. She was a great neonatologist and person. Always caring and available. She will be missed
- gary oakes, savannah, ga
Dr Smith was a stellar example of what a physician should be. She never lost sight of what being kind looked like and dealt with everyone with such heart that you couldn’t help but admire and love her. She was definitely the brightest of stars and her light will continue to shine brightly through all the lives she touched. What a legacy!!!
- Lori Hecker, Savannah, GA
There are no words to express how grateful I am to call Roberta Smith my friend and former boss. Berta, I know that you are still with us... ❤
- Kelly Hunt, Savannah, Georgia
I am so sorry to hear this news. I looked forward to Roberta walking through the door of Mercer School of Medicine. She always had a funny quip! And my grandson was in the NICU at Memorial for the first few days of his life. Thank you for your determination, foresight, and tireless work on behalf of all those tiny babies. You will be missed. Bobbie Shelton
- Bobbie Shelton, Savannah, GA
So sorry for your loss. Dr. Smith was always willing to educate the nurses & the parents.
- Teresa Burkley, Redwood City, CA
Im so sorry for your loss. My condolences to Judith and Roberta's family. An amazing woman and wonderful human being.
- Marla Epperson , Rincon, Ga
Roberta Smith was like a breath of fresh air - always so pleasant, always interested in 'you and yours'. We'll miss that warm, secure feeling when she came our way. Thank you, Roberta.
- Joan Hester Byrd and Family, Savannah, Georgia
I remember Dr. Smith’s first day at Memorial in our small neonatal unit. She was eager to share her knowledge and teach us every step of the way. I will never forget the kindness and compassion she showed the parents & families of our babies. It was a true honor to know and work with Dr. Smith. May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, Rest In Peace.
- Jane Patricia Harte , Savannah, Georgia
Condolences to you and your family Steve. Hugs to Jason and Karen. Your mother was remarkable and she saved the lives of so many babies. What a legacy. I know that God is well pleased with her work here on earth. Rest well Dr. Smith.
- Allison L C Cole , Savannah , Georgia
Our thoughts and prayers are with the beautiful Smith Family- Roberta was a wonderful and compassionate educator and guide to Tracy in her nursing career. And I knew her as Stephen’s Mom! Despite knowing her in two different facets of life- Tracy and I both would use the same descriptors: Loving, caring, warm, compassionate and kind- and also tough! Much Love to all of her family, friends and colleagues.
- Nick and Tracy Mueller, Guyton, GA
Services under the direction of:
Fox & Weeks Funeral Directors, Hodgson Chapel
- 4:00 PM on Thu, August 18, 2022
- Fox & Weeks Funeral Directors, Hodgson Chapel
7200 Hodgson Memorial Drive (map)
Savannah GA 31406
- Funeral Service
- 12:00 PM on Fri, August 19, 2022
- Asbury Memorial Church
1008 E. Henry Street (map)
Savannah GA 31401
- 1:30 on Fri, August 19, 2022
- Bonaventure Cemetery
330 Bonaventure Road (map)
Savannah GA 31404