Vickroy: Ingalls doc marks 30 years of emergency medical care
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy May 25, 2014 9:54PM
Dr. Bernard Heilicser has practiced emergency medicine at Ingalls Memorial Hospital and served as the head of the South Cook County Emergency Medical Services system for 30 years. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 27, 2014 6:12AM
Since he was a little kid growing up in Brighton Beach, New York, Bernard Heilicser has been running toward the sirens, toward the fires, toward the people in distress.
“I’ve always had a fascination with what’s going on,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to help.”
In that department, he goes above and beyond. This year he celebrates 30 years of practicing emergency medicine at Ingalls Hospital in Harvey, as well as three decades at the helm of South Cook County Emergency Medical Services system. He is a volunteer firefighter with the village of Flossmoor and he chairs the ethics committee of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
No doubt, he is a busy man. The way he sees it, “I’m like a kid in Toys R Us.”
I recently caught up with Heilicser during a down moment, which he used to help another employee learn a new computer system. Dressed in a plain sweatshirt and tennis shoes, the unassuming adrenaline junkie winced when I asked about the three pagers he was wearing. “I keep them covered. It’s obnoxious,” he said.
At 67, Heilicser has no desire to hang up his stethoscope. “None whatsoever,” he says. “When I can‘t find my house two out of three days, then I’ll retire.”
Such a lapse of memory doesn’t seem possible for this father of three and grandfather of five who absolutely loves his work, so much so that he has taken his medical bag to all corners of the western hemisphere, helping flood victims in Quincy, Illinois; Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans; and massive numbers of sick and injured in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Diane Jacoby knows Heilicser best from his work as head of the medical ethics team and chairman of the ethics committee at Ingalls.
“He has touched the lives of so many people in the south suburbs,” the hospital’s vice president and general counsel said.
Jacoby said there are two sides to Heilicser’s personality: the quick-reacting first responder and the thoughtful, compassionate medical ethicist.
“He gets called in to help families deal with very difficult medical dilemmas, almost always end-of-life issues,” Jacoby said. “And he’s able to lay out options in a calm and caring way. It’s a gift to be able to do what he does.”
Known for both his drive and his humble demeanor, Jacoby said, “He is an asset to this community.”
The way Heilicser sees it, he’s simply doing “the right thing.”
“If I’ve been given the pleasure to play doctor and to be involved in this type of environment, I feel a moral, ethical, spiritual responsibility to do so,” Heilicser said. “Plus, I get a lot of pleasure doing it.”
Perhaps contributing to that sense of dedication is the hard-fought battle he waged to get his foot in the door, way back when he was a young adult. Though he’d always wanted to be a doctor, he admits he was not the most driven student.
“I like to say I finished in the top 75 percent of my class,” he said.
But he could run. Making All-City helped land the high school halfback a CW Post College football scholarship.
“I quickly realized everyone else was much bigger and that I wasn’t going to make it playing football,” he said.
So he turned his attention to his studies — something he’d neglected most of his life — and realized he was bright.
Bright enough to earn As and bright enough to major in pre-med. He soon transferred to the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he completed his undergraduate degree and applied to medical school.
He was denied. The Vietnam War was ending, there was a flood of applications and admission was extremely competitive.
So he took a job as a social worker, serving the tough communities of Coney Island and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“I enjoyed it, but it was very frustrating work,” he said. “I tried to help people break the cycle of dependency but I really felt that the system perpetuated things.”
About a year into it, he decided to enhance his med school application by going to graduate school. With a fellowship to Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, he earned a master’s in neuroanatomy and applied to medical school again.
He was denied. “But I came close,” he said.
So he took a position at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching anatomy and physiology. In his second year on the job, he took a third whack at his dream.
This time he received multiple acceptances.
“It took a lot of perseverance,” he said. “But I enjoyed everything along the way. If I had to continue teaching, it would have been OK, but I really wanted to be a doctor.”
He choose a three-year accelerated program at Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“I did well — I ended up in the top three of my graduating class,” he said.
He also ended up with a much-coveted internship at the crazy busy Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, located in the city’s Highland Park section. Back in 1976, he said, Detroit led the nation in murders, and Highland Park led Detroit.
“There were a lot of impoverished, very sick people who lacked healthcare — through no fault of their own,” he said.
Though his general internship had him working all over the hospital, he found himself constantly migrating to the ER.
“I learned a lot,” he said, mostly that he wanted to find a way to mesh his love for emergency medicine with his desire to contribute to the community.
His first job out of med school was at Virginia Tech University, where he worked in student health and helped develop the school’s advanced life support ambulance service.
As upsetting as the 2007 shooting massacre was, Heilicser said, “I felt a sense of pride knowing their ambulance response was something I helped create back in 1977-78.”
It was in Blacksburg, Virginia, that he first became a volunteer firefighter. Again, he found himself hanging in emergency rooms.
At last, his search for the ideal position took him to Chicago. He worked at two local hospitals before joining the Ingalls team.
“Here at Ingalls, everything came together,” he said. It enabled him to keep one foot in the hospital ER and the other in the community.
As medical director for the South Cook EMS, he helps oversee paramedic training and establish treatment and transport protocols for emergency personnel.
Heilicser is also deputy commander and deputy medical director of the Illinois Medical Emergency Response System Team (IMERT), and the lead physician and medical manager of the Illinois Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team. His devotion may seem remarkable to the layman but he is quick to point out that such dedication is a common trait among people in his profession. He points to the many medical workers who helped in the aftermath of Katrina.
“The altruism was just wonderful, as I find anywhere I do relief work,” he said. “There were people in the medical profession who came to help even though they didn’t know the status of their own families or if their own homes were still standing.”
In Haiti, he was moved by the patience and gratitude of the people he treated. They would stand for hours, some for days, waiting to see a doctor.
“And then they’d thank you,” he said.
Heilicser is quick to point out that he couldn’t wear the many hats he does without the continuing support of his wife Marcia, whom he met while attending medical school. The couple, who live in Flossmoor, has been married 38 years and have three sons, Micah, Seth and Jacob.
“They enable me to do a job I love. I love the challenge of not knowing what’s coming next and of having to be creative,” he said.
He also lives by a quote a student once brought to his attention: “To the world, you may be one person. But to one person, you may be the world.”