Dr. Merline Plunkett McLain, 82: A psychiatrist who connected quickly with her patients

Three years ago, at the age of 79, Dr. Merline McLain retired as a staff psychiatrist at the Georgia Regional Hospital in south DeKalb County.

During her 10-year tenure there, she was a supervisor of the hospital's 23-hour observation unit, an important first step in the treatment process during which decisions are made about whether patients taken there are admitted for treatment or allowed to leave.

Her colleagues in that unit thought the world of Dr. McLain.

"We called her our Queen Mother -- very caring in her quiet way," said Dr. Dilipkumar Patel of Lilburn. "She never allowed herself to be rushed in a stressful situation. She also was very conscientious and never left work for others to finish, even if it meant she might have to work late."

Dr. McLain had unusual empathy and connected with patients quickly, treating them with love and respect, said Dr. Delquis Mendoza of Alpharetta.

Maria M. Alexander of Atlanta, a social worker at the hospital, said Dr. McLain was a modest woman who shunned the spotlight and always thought of patients first. In addition, she said, Dr. McLain was very considerate of their families and made it a point to keep them informed about their loved ones' conditions.

Dr. Merline Plunkett McLain, 82, of Fayetteville died March 7 of cancer complications at the home of her daughter, Beth Murray, also of Fayetteville. Her memorial service is 5 p.m. March 26 at Carl J. Mowell & Son Funeral Home, Fayetteville.

In 1950, Dr. McLain earned a bachelor's degree in biology at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, but she didn't begin her training as a psychiatrist until 28 years later when she was 50 years old.

Ray Stewart, a family friend from Moberly, Mo., met Mrs. McLain through her daughters who were in school with him.

"I considered Dr. McLain a wise mentor and role model," he said. "When I heard she was going to medical school after her daughters finished high school, it didn't surprise me. I didn't think there was anything she couldn't do."

She first went to the American University of the Caribbean in Plymouth, Montserrat, British West Indies, then in 1982 earned her medical degree from Cetec University in the Dominican Republic. Afterward, she did her residency and internship at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Before coming to Atlanta in 1994, first to work at the Georgia Mental Health Institute, then moving to the Georgia Regional Hospital in 1998, Dr. McLain took on numerous temporary assignments at hospitals in Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Arizona and Wyoming.

One of those temporary assignments was a two-year stint at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Poplar Bluff, Mo. Don McKisson, a colleague at the time and now retired and living in Phoenix, said Dr. McLain did a remarkable job.

"I thought there was no way she -- a middle-aged lady with her hair in a bun -- would relate to combat veterans, many of whom were suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder," he said. "But she had a disarming way about her, and she won their trust."

Mr. McKisson said he's convinced she prevented suicides and gave troubled veterans a reason to go on living. "They got to trusting her so much they asked her to start a support group for their wives," he said.

A granddaughter, Jessica Walker of Russellville, Ark., said that during her sophomore, junior and senior years at Georgia Tech, she lived with Dr. McLain at the latter's Fayetteville home.

"Despite the generational difference between us, we were more like best friends than grandmother and granddaughter. She was very encouraging, often helping me prepare for tests even after she had put in a long day at the hospital," she said.

"Mimi [her grandchildren's term of endearment for Dr. McLain] looked upon psychiatry as a calling," Mrs. Walker said. "The glamour of the profession you sometimes see in TV dramas wasn't for her. It was the opportunity to help people deal with their fears and their troubles."

Survivors include another daughter, Becky Merrill of O'Fallon, Ill.; five other grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.