A lifetime in emergency medicine: Meet Flossmoor's Dr. Bernie
By Tom Houlihan on April 19, 2017 - 10:47pm
For two generations, south suburban paramedics and other medical professionals have known him as “Dr. Bernie.”
Dr. Bernard Heilicser is an emergency room physician, a teacher, an expert in medical ethics and an active volunteer member of the Flossmoor Fire Department.
For the past 33 years, he's been the emergency medical system director of the South Cook County EMS System, operating through Ingalls Memorial Hospital and training thousands of paramedics.
He is largely responsible for developing the training, continuing education and oversight of emergency medicine in an area stretching from Evergreen Park on the north, to the Palos communities on the west, University Park on the south and the Indiana state line on the east.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate to work with folks in EMS,” Heilicser said. “They are smart and their dedication is amazing. They focus on taking care of other human beings. Having the privilege of working with them has been my good fortune.”
To his colleagues, Heilicser is greatly revered, and something of a legend.
Homewood Fire Chief Bob Grabowski, who calls him "a great, great man," graduated from Heilicser’s first paramedic class in 1985.
“South Cook County has been so fortunate to have him and his staff for so long. Dr. H. is one of the kindest and most caring individuals I have ever met,” Grabowski said. “He truly cares about every patient and every paramedic in our EMS system. Nothing, and I mean nothing, comes above these two principles.”
Grabowski said Heilicser impressed upon him and many others “that health care is a basic human right of all people, and that we must always strive to treat our patients in the same manner as we would want ourselves or our family members treated.”
Flossmoor Fire Chief Christopher Sewell remembers the first time he encountered Heilicser on an emergency call. Sewell remembers he was a young EMT at the time and no longer remembers the specifics of the call, but that it was “serious.”
“I remember Bernie showing up and jumping right in to help,” Sewell said. “I looked up and said, ‘Hi Doc.’ When he had a chance he pulled me aside and said ‘Please don’t call me Doc. Call me Bernie. I’m here as one of you guys.’
"That’s what Dr. Heilicser has always been, one of ‘us guys.’ He’s always available to us day or night if we need help or have questions. He provides a quiet leadership type of presence that all paramedics can learn from. He exudes a high ethical standard and strives to pass those qualities on to all.”
Heilicser joined his first volunteer fire department in the late 1970s in Blacksburg, Va., where he was working in student health services at Virginia Tech University. Since then he has been a volunteer firefighter and paramedic wherever he’s lived. In the South Suburbs, that includes departments in University Park, Matteson and now Flossmoor.
Heilicser said that as a firefighter and paramedic, he follows a personal protocol during emergencies.
“Whenever I go on a call, I do the same thing,” he said. "I go up to whoever is in charge and say ‘What can I do to help?’ People who respond to emergencies are there to help.”
During a late-February interview with the Homewood-Flossmoor Chronicle, Heilicser was asked about his most recent paramedic call. It was, he said, two weeks earlier in response to a carbon monoxide leak at an apartment building in Richton Park. Fifteen people were taken to the hospital.
“Richton Park did a great job,” he said.
Gravitating toward emergency medicine Heilicser said emergency medicine “is what I’ve always done.”
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, he said he was fascinated by lights and sirens and was always “curious, interested.”
Medical issues in his family growing up also steered him toward medicine.
“I wanted to help my family,” he said.
However, he admits to not being a stellar student. He went to college on a football scholarship. “I was an all-city halfback, very fast,” he said.
Once in college, though, he realized he needed to start studying. He graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton with a pre-med degree. But he didn’t make it into medical school right away, working first as a social worker in New York City in the late 1960s, then returning to school for a master's degree in neuroanatomy from the Hahnemann College of Medicine in Philadelphia. After that, he taught at Hahnemann and at the University of Pennsylvania, also in Philadelphia.
“Deep down I still wanted to be a doctor,” he said. He eventually entered medical school at Des Moines University in Iowa. While there he taught anatomy.
He completed his internship in Detroit in 1976 and 1977.
“I found myself gravitating toward emergency medicine,” he said. ”It was a difficult period for Detroit. There was a lot of violence, a lot of trauma."
After that, he worked at Virginia Tech, where he also helped out with athletics and was an assistant physician on the football team. At Virginia Tech he also helped set up the EMS system in place on the day of the mass killings at the school in 2007.
Heilicser and his wife Marcia — they met in Iowa and have been married 43 years — wanted to live in a more cosmopolitan area and decided to move to Chicago. He went to work at the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, then in Hyde Park. He also began doing emergency room shifts at Olympia Fields Osteopathic Medical Center (now Franciscan-St. James), which brought him to the South Suburbs for the first time. He also worked at Ingalls and St. Margaret Hospital in Hammond.
In 1983, Ingalls asked Heilicser to be the EMS director for communities training their paramedics through the hospital. It is, he said, one of the largest such systems in the state.
He is quick to point out that there were two EMS directors for the South Suburbs before him; each served for five years and made substantial contributions to the system, he said.
Learning in the classroom and in the field The Ingalls system is part of EMS District 7, which has similar programs at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, as well as medical centers in Kankakee, Morris and other towns.
Basic EMS courses are offered at community colleges throughout the region. The Ingalls program provides additional educational experiences, both in the classroom and in fieldwork, for people seeking state certification as paramedics.
“These are not easy classes,” he says.
The paramedic program lasts one year. Learning to save lives involves classroom instruction, but students must also perform rotations in hospital emergency rooms, cardiac and obstetrics areas and other medical units. They are required to go on more than four dozen emergency calls during their training period.
Alongside his duties with EMS of South Cook County, Heilicser has, for 14 years, been the medical director of Illinois Task Force 1, an urban search and rescue team that responds to disasters in the state.
“We go out when something really bad happens,” he said. His team responded to the 2015 tornado that hit Coal City and Braidwood. Task Force 1, a state agency, has 210 members across Illinois.
For 16 years, Heilicser has also been deputy medical director of the Illinois Medical Emergency Response Team (IMERT), a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit group made up of hundreds of volunteers from across the state.
As an IMERT member, Heilicser went to Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. IMERT has also deployed emergency personnel in response to heat-related deaths in Chicago, flooding along the Mississippi River and the sometimes violent protests during the 2012 NATO conference in Chicago.
Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Heilicser volunteered to be part of a medical relief mission in the stricken island nation.
“As soon as I heard about it I knew I had to go.” He joined a group of doctors from various area hospitals — Cook County, Rush, Loyola and the University of Illinois. They were stationed at the University Hospital in Port au Prince, Haiti's capital. Two-thirds of the buildings in their neighborhood had been severely damaged by the earthquake.
“I’ve seen an awful lot in my life but nothing like that ever before,” he said. “The quake killed 300,000 people, and we dealt with the survivors. How many children can you see who have lost limbs? Everyone had someone who had died.”
He was there 10 days. At night, he slept with his passport in a partially destroyed hotel. He left with just the clothes he was wearing — the rest went into a dumpster to be given to survivors of the catastrophe.
It was, he said, an emotionally devastating experience and one that was hard on him after he returned home. A year later, he was able to return to Haiti as part of a United Nations mission. The return trip, he said, gave him some closure.
“You learn to appreciate what you have,” he said. “There are so many people who don’t have anything, and they keep trying every day.”
Heilicser is a trained fellow from the MacLean Center for Clinical Ethics at the University of Chicago and has lectured around the country about medical ethics for more than 20 years.
He just turned 70 but has no desire to retire.
“I enjoy what I do,” he said.
He gives much of the credit to his wife and family.
His wife Marcia “keeps me focused,” he said. "I couldn’t do this if she was not so supportive.”
The Heilicsers have three married sons and six grandchildren.
“Family is always the most important thing in life,” he said.
Heilicser also said the Ingalls EMS staff is responsible for much of the program’s success.
He is aware that many years have passed since he took over as head of the EMS program.
“These days we are giving diplomas to the kids of kids I taught years ago,” Heilicser said. “I taught their parents and now I am teaching them.”
He said it takes a special person to be a paramedic.
“It’s the kind of calling where you want to help other human beings,” he said. “You want to make life better.
“I work with some of the best people you can be around.”
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