Remembering Dr. Bernadine Healy, a Colleague and Friend

She shared with us her passion and concern for every patient, every person.

By SHARE

Bernadine Healy, M.D., my U.S. News colleague and friend who died of brain cancer on August 6, climbed to the top of some of healthcare's highest mountains—director of the National Institutes of Health, head of the American Red Cross, and president of the American Heart Association are only three of the many summits she scaled. Even from those heights, she never lost sight of her core belief as a physician and as a person: that medicine is about doctors who see each of their patients as a unique individual, deserving of the best help her profession has to offer.

She lived her life that way, always focused on the value and dignity of each person with whom she crossed paths. She objected to any form of healthcare that herded patients into faceless groups and ignored their individuality and autonomy. And she abhorred the use of data to restrict care when the same data could be used to enhance it. While others might argue that a cancer drug with a modest benefit was not worth its cost, for example, she refused to submit to such cold-hearted thinking.

"Nobody points out that if a cancer drug extends life by an average of four months, that means half the patients taking it have their lives extended by more than four months," Dr. Healy once told me. "Some of them live another 10 months, a year, more than a year. Are we saying that means nothing?"

She herself lived under the shadow of cancer for more than a decade, and she squeezed every drop out of the time that medicine and her indomitable will gave her. As she wrote in her book, Living Time, about her battle with cancer:

Treasuring the moment at hand is what lifts the spirit. Dismiss it as clichéd talk if you will, but to those threatened by a grave illness, every day of just being takes on a new light. Surely you wonder how you could ever complain again—about a rainy day, a broken piece of china, or someone's unkind words. Though that feeling of equanimity salves the cancer shock, it can also linger in the consciousness and become a subtle yet permanent state of being. I catch myself when I get too caught up in some silly little thing; I remind myself, What am I doing? How lucky I am to be here.

There was no question about her passion and genuine concern for every person whose fate was in the hands of the medical profession. She took calls and answered E-mails from anyone who had read her columns or otherwise found their way to her, gently steering them toward trusted sources of help.

Within the halls of U.S. News, Dr. Healy imbued our work with human perspective. In one instance, we learned that a little girl in a story that was about to go to press—a story that focused on the cutting-edge care she'd been receiving for a grave condition—had died. We had nothing we could substitute. Should we let the story run? Add a note of explanation?

Bernadine Healy listened to the debate for a few minutes in obvious disbelief, then outrage. "How can you even think about running it?" she demanded. "How would you feel if you were her parents?" She vowed she would do everything possible to derail that option, and the fierceness of her demeanor left no doubt that she would. Abashed, we took it off the table and the child out of the story.

Journalists get nervous when their turf is invaded by those who have never practiced our craft. They have never worked the phones or had to absorb new ideas in a few minutes and sweated out readable copy with the clock ticking. When the invaders come with a glittery resume, we tend to assume the worst: They will turn in columns that are boring, badly written, or both, and we will never see them in the office. They are window dressing.

Bernadine Healy came, stayed, and succeeded. She worked alongside us, made us feel that we were part of her family, and told us she felt that way. She humbly asked for help with her writing, and graciously and patiently offered guidance to anyone who knocked on her door. She spent hours on the phone researching her columns and stories. She pulled all-nighters because she had amassed so much material that she wanted to review and somehow squeeze into 600 words. She knew how to put words together when she came, and before long she had become a damned good writer. Her passion and drive were not limited to medicine. I have never met anyone like her.