Obituary: Dr. Karen R. Fonde


At 40, Karen Rhea Fonde achieved a longtime ambition: She walked across the stage at Hill Auditorium to receive her diploma as a medical doctor from the University of Michigan.

Dr. Karen Rhea Fonde

Dr. Fonde loved teaching. She was mother, humanitarian, healer, scientist, feminist, Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and teacher in a juvenile home before she became a family medicine physician and assistant professor in U-M’s Family Medicine Department. Fonde died March 1 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 65.

Fonde was valedictorian of her 1967 Ann Arbor High School class. She was a presidential scholar and shook hands with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. She was high school editor of the Ann Arbor News and while studying at U-M was an intern reporter at that newspaper. She was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of U-M in Russian Studies and served as a health educator with the Peace Corps in northern Togo.

Fonde and Joel Thurtell were married in 1974. For three years, she taught at the Berrien County Juvenile Center. After the couple’s first son, Adam, was born in 1980, she decided to attend medical school. But first, she and Joel had a second son, Abe, in 1983. While studying science at Western Michigan University, she won the Freshman Chemistry Prize at age 32. At U-M Medical School, she was inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha, the medical honor society.

She received her medical degree from U-M in 1990, and graduated from the U-M Family Medicine residency program in 1993. She helped open a new U-M family medicine clinic in Ypsilanti, where she treated patients and taught until 2008.

Fonde was dedicated to helping new physicians cope with the pressures of medicine and presented a research paper on “The Resident in Difficulty.” By 2008, she herself was a physician in difficulty, with memory and cognitive problems that eventually were diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease.

In a family gathering, one could always locate Fonde by the sound of her infectious laughter. Long after she lost the power of speech, Fonde could still find things to make her smile. She loved her sons, her husband, her parents and siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. She loved to swim and ski, and enjoyed sailing around the family’s island in McGregor Bay, Canada.

In addition to her husband and sons, Fonde is survived by two sisters, Julia Davis (Max), of Howell and Anne Potter (William), of Dayton, Ohio; and a brother, Charles Fonde (Linda), of Carmel, Indiana. A second brother, Mark Fonde (Stacey), of Ann Arbor, died a week earlier, on Feb. 22.

Memorial visitation Friday 6-9 p.m. Friday (March 6) at Vermeulen-Sajewski Funeral Home, 46401 W. Ann Arbor Road, Plymouth (Between Sheldon and Beck). Friends are also invited to gather with the family at 10 a.m. Saturday until the 11 a.m. memorial service to be held at the Ann Arbor City Club, 1830 Washtenaw Avenue, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Memorials may be made to Arbor Hospice or Planned Parenthood.

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