A Fond Farewell to My Rockstar Cancer Surgeon

My cancer surgeon is retiring. Here’s a fond farewell to the man who saved my life — multiple times.

I’m still recovering from the shock… Recently, at my annual checkup, I learned that my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. John Healey, is retiring.

The two of us go back to 2016, when I was first diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer. I’ll always remember our first meeting: I had come for a second opinion but had generally liked the first place’s (another top-rated NYC hospital) surgeon. So when I arrived at MSK for a comparison and found myself waiting almost three hours for Dr. Healey to show for our scheduled consultation, I couldn’t have been any more turned off.

His reputation surely preceded him; in fact, the only reason I was even able to secure an appointment was because his assistant explained that Dr. Healey was intrigued with the rare case of a 30-year-old diagnosed with osteosarcoma, normally found in teens and younger.

Adding to the prestige of Healey, nurses and other hospital staff would later praise him like a rockstar. “When he enters a room,” my nurse practitioner once shared, “the rest of us can’t help but feel awestruck… it’s like Elvis is in the building.”

But a three-hour wait? At the time, all I could think was,“how dare he? Who the hell did this guy think he was?”

Then, finally, Dr. Healey walked in and somehow completely disarmed me. He looked tired (no doubt from saving lives all day) and his vibe was entirely unpretentious; he had more of a gentle, grandfather-like energy, devoting his full attention while speaking very slowly— it was like his words struggled to keep pace with his brain’s supersonic speed.

I would quickly learn the reason he showed up so late was because he is so extremely thorough with each patient, every single appointment. And once he started breaking down possible strategies of how to remove the tumor in my right leg, it quickly became clear this man was the Michael Jordan of the medical world.

The prior surgeon I had met may have also been a nice guy, but Healey clearly outmatched him with knowledge and expertise. In my case, Healey’s surgical recommendation was to insert a state-of-the art, custom rod in my leg replacing the tumor, complemented with part of my fibula (a separate operation)to help cement the rod in place.Honestly, I still don’t completely understand it, and may have said it wrong; it doesn’t matter, the point is that Healey understood it and knew how to execute it perfectly.

This procedure will spare me maintenance procedures that I would’ve needed with the other approaches for years to come. Oh, by the way, the surgery took over 18 hours.

Dr. Healey was on top of the trends — ordering for me, at one point, special meds to help prevent further complications and reduce the likelihood of recurrences. And I leaned on his expertise again when I experienced a hip tumor years later. Again, Healey took care of it with a partial hip replacement. Piece of cake for this guy.

But perhaps what I appreciated most about Healey was his genuine sense of compassion and empathy. I always felt that I could open up to him. He wouldn’t judge me for exploring alternative healing approaches, he’d listen and respect my concerns about radiation from all the X-rays, CT and PET scans… and it was Dr. Healey who inspired the confidence in me to take a big step in my cancer-fighting journey.

After hip surgery, I still had cancerous nodules in both lungs. Other doctors assured me that surgery would only lead to them coming back (as they had twice already) and so I took a break from scans because without a solution, I figured extra radiation would only speed up the damage. But riding high from the successful hip surgery, I shared with him my dilemma and after careful consideration, he encouraged me to go in for a few more lung surgeries, even if I was ultimately being told the approach was futile.

Well, I took his advice—because this was Dr. Healey and he never led me wrong— and promptly scheduled the operations. After the procedures, I kept disciplined with all my holistic and alternative healing approaches, and miraculously, the nodules haven’t returned almost five years later. 

On our most recent video call, I reiterated all of this to him, thanked him once more, and let him know he’s a critical reason that even I’m alive today. He shrugged it off, of course, but did acknowledge his gratitude for the kind words and reaffirmed that people like me were the reason he did what he did. A true heartfelt moment.

Moving our conversation along, I then joked, “All I need now is for you to never retire!”

That’s when his expression shifted uncomfortably.

“Well, Steve. That brings me to the next thing I wanted to talk about…”

He didn’t need to say another word. I knew exactly what was coming and it hit me like a brick to the stomach.

After seeing the shocked look in my eyes, he offered an encouraging smile. “You don’t need me anymore,” he explained.

And hopefully that’s the case, but I guess selfishly, I wanted to be the one to leave; to go off on my terms. Maybe over time to stop needing checkups as frequently, or if my wife and I ever move out of New York, that seemed like a fair enough time to say our goodbyes.

Really, I just liked the idea of knowing my go-to guy was in the background, ready and willing to be called into action if needed. But if cancer has taught me nothing else, it’s that we don’t get to control everything.

In the meantime, Dr. Healey deserves to be acknowledged for the legend he is and I’m forever grateful to have had him on my side.

Thank you again, for saving my life.

Multiple times.

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