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    Doctor stricken on global journey

    The pediatrician, 50, schedules heart surgery for after her adventure, but didn't make it.

    By JOHN BALZ

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2001


    TAMPA -- Dr. Martha Cebrian learned about her heart murmur 15 years ago, but it never hindered her adventurous spirit.

    After two decades in medicine, she decided the time was right to embark on that around-the-world sailing adventure she and her husband had been dreaming about for years.

    She quit her job as medical director of pediatric care at All Children's Hospital, and he took time off from the Tampa advertising agency he owns. They set sail on Amada, their 40-foot catamaran, in October 1999.

    They traveled through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, where they took a break to watch the America's Cup races and the Summer Olympics. Before embarking on the second leg of their trip, they flew home to Tampa, where doctors agreed her heart valve needed repair.

    They set a date for surgery: after completion of the journey.

    Dr. Cebrian never made it to the operating table. She suffered a fatal heart attack March 10 at a stop in Rio de Janeiro to enjoy the extravagance of carnival and to watch jaguars roam the Brazilian countryside.

    "I've been second-guessing myself for the last five days," said her husband, Ralph Campbell, who owns HLA Advertising & Public Relations. "But she was a doctor, and she did all the checks. It was just luck of draw."

    Friends and relatives have spent the week mourning and remembering Dr. Cebrian, 50, as a dedicated doctor, an ace skipper and a gourmet chef.

    Born in Cuba in 1950, Dr. Cebrian emigrated to Miami in 1960 before moving to New Jersey. She attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and later earned a medical degree from the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine at Rutgers University.

    Campbell and Dr. Cebrian met on an airplane flight from Norfolk, Va., to New York City 18 years ago, and moved to Tampa in 1986. Five years ago, Dr. Cebrian and Campbell moved to St. Petersburg, where she became the medical director of pediatric care at All Children's.

    Friends describe Dr. Cebrian as a warm and generous woman with a passion for everything she did -- sailing, dancing and taking care of kids. Many of her friends spent time with Campbell and Dr. Cebrian on Amada, dancing in the moonlight, or enjoying her roast pork garnished with strawberries.

    The couple never had children of their own. "The kids at the hospital were her kids," said Jack Bichsel, a business partner of Campbell's.

    While at All Children's, Dr. Cebrian was responsible for starting the Acute Pediatric Care unit that helps severely ill or handicapped kids and their families deal with the emotional and physical stresses of their disease. She became known as the "orchestra conductor" for the way she nurtured families and directed the spate of doctors and specialists it takes to look after chronically ill children.

    "She was always with me," said Estelle Rodriquez, whose son Fernando was under Dr. Cebrian's care. "I could always call her in the middle of the night. She was such an encouragement."

    This Saturday at noon, Dr. Cebrian's friends and family plan to hold a ceremony celebrating her life at the St. Petersburg Little Theater that will include a video, a slide show and speeches. After the event, another celebration will be held at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

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