As MacKeigan lived his final days, he talked more about living than dying. “The experience of dying is reaffirming living,” he mused from his living room overlooking Lake Michigan, his children and grandchildren milling around the house. Reaffirming relationships: “My kids and family are everything,” MacKeigan said. “Memories and love are the best legacy.”
“He’s always been at the top of his game,” Suzie said. “He started medical school early, at age 17. When he left surgery, his partners said, ‘No — we want you to stay.’ When he retired from Spectrum last summer they wanted him to stay. “He’s going out at the top of his game,” she said. “Now he’ll show the rest of us how he thinks it should be done.”
A great example of MacKeigan’s collaborative leadership was his role in the creation of the Partnership for Michigan’s Health, Johnson said, which included the Michigan State Medical Society, the Michigan Osteopathic Association, and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. The purpose was to bring together these key organizations to create one voice for health care advocacy and funding. The organization, created in 2004, is still active on behalf of the key health care providers in Michigan.
MacKeigan treated his patients like family, too. “Making a difference and curing people,” MacKeigan said. “That’s the most wonderful part of medicine.” He loved curing patients of cancer. He also loved his relationships with them. “Lots of surgeons take out gall bladders,” he said, looking out at the lake. “It’s as important to build relationships. You sit down, hold their hand, look in their eyes.”
“If you could write a perfect way to do this, he’s doing it,” Sara says of her dad’s final days. “He really believes life is about love and memories, and he wants to create more memories.” The guy who walked fast, ran the stairs instead of taking the elevator and checked his bags at the airport hours ahead of his flight was slowing down. “He’s more reflective lately, he’s slowed down to cherish his moments,” Sara said. “And so have we.”
MacKeigan was board chair and chief medical officer for Michigan Medical P.C. from 2005 to 2009. He also was associate clinical professor of surgery at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Along the way, awards piled up. MacKeigan was inducted in 2005 into the Grand Rapids Medical Hall of Fame. In 2007, he received the Presidential Award for service from the Michigan State Medical Society.
Simple things made MacKeigan happy. He loved hot dogs and a good slice of pie. Those close to him know he loved red licorice. But he was specific about it — it had to be strawberry Twizzlers. His daughter, Sara Dembeck, a nurse in Denver, sat on the couch and told how, during family car trips, her dad would always buy a bag of Twizzlers and plop it on the dashboard. It was a treat for special family times, and he always gave each grandchild strawberry Twizzlers on their birthdays. As Sara told about it, granddaughter Sophie grabbed a bag of Twizzlers from the kitchen and passed around the twisty red sticks. Her Aunt Sara smiled and munched one as she talked.
I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend, Johnny MacKeigan. He was an important figure at Spectrum Health and made an everlasting impact on the hospitals, staff, patients, and community he interacted with. Though we have lost John far too early, we hope to remain a constant source of remembrance in carrying on his legacy for years to come. In honor of John, Terri Finch Hamilton, local Grand Rapids writer, has written a beautiful profile over his life as a physician, medical executive, and, most importantly, a family man. Please read on in the coming days as we highlight various chapters of Dr. MacKeigan’s life. –Steve Heacock