Patrick Hearlihy’s composure has stepped away from him twice since his April 25 diagnosis with non small cell lung cancer, a virulent form of the disease.
Once was the afternoon when he returned to Springfield Catholic Central Junior/Senior High School and principal Kenith Brit asked him how his appointment went.
“I don’t know if I said anything,” said Hearlihy, who is 61. “I was in a state of shock.”
The second came when he had to tell his boss he was retiring after 12 years as director of finance of the school from which he gradated in 1970 and that last year put him in its Hall of Honor.
By the time Hearlihy retires Friday, however, he will have achieved the first goal in his post-working life: convening a lung cancer support group for the Springfield community — the very kind of group he and his wife of 36 years, Sandi, have found so very helpful.
Planned for the second Tuesday of each month, the Springfield Lung Cancer Support Group will meet for the first time at 6 p.m. this Tuesday in the Community Room of the Springfield Regional Cancer Center, 148 W. North St.
People living with lung cancer, survivors, caregivers, family members and friends all are welcome.
Hearlihy’s move won’t surprise anyone at Catholic Central, where he has built a reputation as a thorough, thoughtful and caring person.
“I really give him a lot of credit for saving Catholic Central,” said Pete Hackett, a long time Central supporter and accountant.
“He has been one of the chief architects of turning around” the school’s financial picture, said Hackett. “He’s just a solid guy.”
Sr. Teresa Laengle, the school’s principle when Hearlihy was hired, said he not only brought in the American Dream Raffle, one of the big pieces in the financial turnaround, but put in the long hours on weekends to work on procedures to plug a host of small financial leaks.
Added the sister: “He had the best interests of the school in mind in everything he did.”
A non-smoker who wasn’t exposed to second-hand smoke, had his house tested for Radon and has jogged five days a week for more than 30 years, Hearlihy had bought a new mattress, replaced his chair at work, and stopped running before he went to his doctor for another look at what he thought was a chronic back problem.
Initial tests turned up negative, but when Hearlihy mentioned a cough that never seemed to totally disappear, his doctor ordered a chest X-ray and delivered the bad news: lung cancer metastasized to the bone.
A whirlwind 15 appointments in 18 days had him heading for his first chemotherapy appointment on a Thursday at the James Cancer Center in Columbus.
The day before, Hearlihy found the support group he had been searching for, which met Wednesdays at the Stephanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Care Center.
That got him on the phone to his wife asking: “What are we doing tonight? We’ve got to leave for Columbus in two hours.”
“When we walked out of that first meeting, we both had that warm, fuzzy feeling,” Hearlihy said.
Sandi Hearlihy said talking to people who have had “a little longevity” beyond the 8-12 months mentioned online “was encouraging to me.”
She said those at the group “were very caring, very warm and very welcoming,” and their suggestions for new people or web sites to visit were helpful.
“Pat said we have to have something back here,” she recalled. “That’s the way he attacks pretty much anything.”
To date, his treatments have gone well.
Instead of losing his appetite, Hearlihy has gained 12 pounds. Instead of feeling tired, he has energy.
“My pain med is one ibuprofen a day,” he said, and “my wife and I are walking six days a week.”
Although he hasn’t noticed fatigue and has missed just one day of work, Hearlihy, whose complexion has gone a shade paler, recently received blood to counteract anemia.
The Hearlihy family expressed the universal hope the blood was from a good golfer so it might help him on the nine holes he plays every weekend.
Five cycles into a scheduled six three-week cycles of chemotherapy, he’s seen the primary tumor in his lower left lung shrink from 3.7 centimeters to 1 centimeter.
A Pet scan at the end of the sixth round will do a check on sites in his lower back, upper spine, hip, ribs and sternum where the cancer has metastasized.
What resentment he might have felt for being diagnosed with lung cancer after his history of healthful lifestyle choices has morphed into something else.
“I think God saw this coming, and he was having me get my butt out of bed” to get in physical shape for the challenge, Hearlihy said.
“I’ve always been a regular church-goer,” he added. “But my spirituality’s shot up in the last few months.”
He’s had a face-to-face with a bishop who’s praying for him, talked to a Cardinal, and has Catholic Center graduate Fr. Ryan Ruiz, who is studying in Rome, working on getting him on the Pope’s prayer list.
Closer to home, he said he has been “humbled” by the all the cards, prayers and well-wishes he’s received all around.
He has done his due diligence, too, getting what’s called a “remote second opinion” from a well regarded lung cancer doctor in Colorado, hopes to get on a clinical trial there if circumstances work out, and knows the odds are not in his favor.
The University of Colorado, where the doctor he has consulted works, advertises a 13 percent survival rate after five years is four times the national average.
“With the prognosis I have,” he said, “a miracle could be very helpful.”
In the meantime, he’s planning a trip to the Holy Land in November, looking forward to daughter Erin’s wedding in March and asking his family, including another daughter, Megan, her husband and a grandson, to set aside time for a trip to Ireland next summer.
As his wife says, it’s the way Hearlihy tackles anything.