Turning a Negative Into a Positive with Dr. Jeffrey Bruce

“When your oncologist calls you on a Sunday, it’s rarely good news,” says Richard Heimler. “He’s probably not calling to ask how your weekend was.” In Richard’s case, his doctor was calling to tell him he had a brain tumor.

Richard had been a patient in the Department of Oncology at Columbia University Medical Center / New York Presbyterian Hospital for four years. He refers to his doctors as his “Dream Team.” Included on that team is Dr. Jeffrey Bruce, Co-Director of the Brain Tumor Center at Columbia.

Richard’s journey with cancer has involved numerous doctors, surgeries, chemotherapy and several non-invasive and minimally invasive procedures. He’s had nine reoccurrences in ten years. He feels lucky because has had access to new procedures and clinical trials as they have come out.

Richard truly feels that he is alive today because of a combination of biology, chemistry, timing and good luck. “Well, not good luck. But some luck.”

“A brain tumor was the one thing that I was really scared of,” says Richard, who had already been navigating cancer for several years when he got the diagnosis. On April 12, 2004, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. “My entire right lung had to be removed, which was especially tough for me, because my left lung is compromised by scoliosis. I was left with about 30% total breathing capacity, which is not great.” But, it was the best option and Richard has been surviving with one lung ever since.

“As a cancer patient, the worst time is the time between when you are told that you have something, until the time you have a game plan,” says Richard. “You’re kind of in no man’s land.” After the news about the brain tumor, Richard had a few days in that limbo space before his appointment with Dr. Bruce.

“Now, what’s amazing about Dr. Bruce is that, when you’re in his presence, you really feel like everything is going to be okay. His support staff is unbelievable. They know that you need to get in as soon as possible and they do whatever they can to get you in to see him.”

“I felt very safe with Dr. Bruce the minute I met him. I knew I was in good hands. I knew this man was going to take care of me. He told me that it was a small, operable tumor in an easy location. He was confident that he could remove it. We had a game plan and I felt better. Within a week, I had surgery by Dr. Bruce. It was early in the morning and by 11 a.m. I was in recovery reading the New York Times. I went home later that day. It was amazing.”

All was going well and then one year later, Dr. Bruce found another tumor. This time, he suggested gamma knife radiosurgery, a noninvasive procedure that uses beams of highly focused gamma rays to treat small to medium sized lesions.

Richard remembers, “Dr. Bruce set me up with Dr. Steven Isaacson [from the Gamma Knife Center], who is another unbelievable human being. He is one of the sweetest, nicest men. He’s so easy to talk with and he put me at ease right away. The amazing thing was that I was in the hospital at 6:30 a.m. and home by 9:30 a.m.”

“You know,” Richard says, “I can tell you that when it comes New York Presbyterian, I don’t know if I’d be alive today without that hospital.” Richard knows that Dr. Bruce, Dr. Isaacson and the rest of their department are major reasons for his success. “They have been unbelievable.”

On the tenth anniversary of his diagnosis, Richard wanted to do something special. He decided to create a film aptly titled “Turning a Negative into a Positive.” Not only is this a motto that he lives by, but he realized that he could do this literally with the use of his X-rays. He would ask his loved ones to paint something that they wanted on Richard’s brain and lung scans, and he could film them as they were creating it.

Richard gave out the X-rays, and he filmed his family and friends as they painted and reflected on what this ten-year journey has been like for them.

The X-rays-turned-art include images of light, life and love, along with memories of Broadway shows, Jets games and shared crossword puzzles with his family.

Richard transformed one scan with the words that he always uses to sign his letters: “Life goes on…..thankfully!”

Richard’s story and his family’s experience are captured in this short and inspirational film, Richard’s Rays of Hope.

“The reason I was doing this video, was I knew there was somebody, somewhere who just got diagnosed with lung cancer and is feeling really lost and doesn’t know where to turn. They might feel like it’s a death sentence, and they really need a little hope and inspiration. I wanted them to have the opportunity to hear my story and to know that statistics aren’t for everybody. People do beat the odds!”

Richard’s gratitude for his medical team is deeply profound.

“These doctors truly have used their God-given talents, their expertise, their education and their experience to do everything they can to keep me alive.”