CLEARWATER — The boy was crying. His upper lip was split wide open, the result of a bad-tempered iguana he had tried to kiss.
On that day in 1995, Sophia Vasileros took her 6-year-old son to the place she knew she'd get help: the office of Deborah Ann French. Time was critical. Dr. French dialed a plastic surgeon.
"You need to stitch up this child," she said. "Now."
The surgeon left the emergency room where he was working and opened his office. That's how Dr. French got things done.
She grew up poor, the daughter of a Louisiana school principal who died at age 29. Her sister died of an embolism at age 22.
Friends at Louisiana State University's medical school remember Dr. French as a social organizer who kept them in line.
Dr. Gloria Richard-Davis, 51, said Dr. French often hosted informal dinners in her apartment, where she served her famous gumbo, red beans and rice, and pecan pie.
All she asked of guests was to arrive on time. For latecomers, there was no slipping in quietly.
"She would say, 'You know what time I said dinner is, and you come in here late?' " Richard-Davis said.
She urged her friends on in school. "She was always the one who studied, no matter what," said Dr. Patricia Wright. "She would say, 'Come on, we don't need to look at TV. We need to study and get enough sleep.' "
She played as hard as she worked.
When it was time to take a break — say, 2 a.m. — the band of students took in New Orleans night life, sometimes staying out past sunrise.
"We'd stay out till the crack of dawn," said Richard-Davis. "But she would go straight from partying to church while the rest of us were staggering home to bed.
"Then she would talk about the rest of us like a dog."
Friends celebrated Dr. French's humor, which Richard-Davis called "a dry jab. She'd cut you and stand back."
Parents discovered that mirth differently, a playful spirit with children and a mastery of down-to-earth communication.
"She could pull off a diaper and take a whiff and say, 'This child needs its formula changed,' " said Susan Baumgarner of Clearwater. Baumgarner, now 47, came to Dr. French as a frightened new mother with twins born eight weeks prematurely.
"When we walked in the door, she treated all three of us, not just the baby," she said.
She kept her own diagnosis largely private. Doctors discovered ovarian cancer 10 years ago. The disease went in and out of remission at least twice. She pressed on because that was her nature, and also because she wanted to survive through her daughter's growing-up years.
Dr. French became active in Camp Mak-a-Dream, a camp for children who have cancer, and visited the camp several times in Missoula, Mont.
She remained in practice until November. In March, after she could not hold food down, she talked frankly with Richard-Davis, who is now the chairwoman of obstetrics at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.
"It was an unbelievable conversation," Richard-Davis said. Dr. French seemed ready, accepting.
She had sold her medical practice and talked extensively with her husband and daughter.
Dr. French died Friday. She was 52.
Patients remember her as one of a kind.
"You know how sometimes you meet someone," Baumgarner said, "and you just know right away that they just have that warmth, that inner compassion?
"You just felt like she wrapped her arms around you as soon as you met her. She didn't have to touch you, but you just knew she was there."
Andrew Meacham can be reached
at (813) 661-2431 or