Homage to a well-loved man
Local hematologist/oncologist Dr. John Howard passes away unexpectedly at age 65
Last Saturday afternoon (May 14), under cool and semi-cloudy skies, hundreds of people gathered at Chico State University to remember Dr. John Howard. Colleagues, friends, relatives and patients—all of whom he considered family—packed Harlen Adams Theatre to capacity, then claimed every seat and bench in the adjacent courtyard for a memorial service scheduled to last 90 minutes but surpassing two hours.
It could have gone longer. So many people queued up to share their recollections that the officiant, Rebecca Senoglu of the Enloe Regional Cancer Center, drew the line at two dozen. Nurses, physicians, patients, kin—every one had something special to say about the hematologist/ oncologist who’d touched so many individuals during his 28 years practicing medicine in Chico.
Howard was 65 and in apparent good health when he died suddenly of natural causes on May 4. He’d planned to transition into semi-retirement this summer, but in the interim continued to see patients full time at the Cancer Center and serve as assistant medical director at BloodSource North Valley, a nonprofit blood bank.
Yet, as those who cherished him shared Saturday, Howard was more than just a medical man. He loved folk dancing and playing the flute. He hiked and backpacked. He rooted for the L.A. Dodgers baseball team, even after moving into San Francisco Giants territory. He traveled with his wife, Leslie, to the ancestral homelands of his parents: Lithuania (his mother); Scotland, Wales and Ireland (his father). He was devoted to his daughters and doted on his granddaughters.
Still, he saved ample room in his life and heart for thousands of Chicoans afflicted with cancer, AIDS and other serious ailments—as well as for his fellow caregivers.
In the words of Dr. Marcia Nelson, Enloe vice president of medical affairs: “He certainly had a life well-lived. It’s hard for us to imagine a world without Dr. Howard.”
John Richard Howard Jr., M.D., came to Chico in 1983. He was reared and schooled in Southern California, then completed his medical training in Oregon. He joined the hematology/oncology practice of Dr. Donald Stoner (who passed away earlier this year) and Dr. David Potter. Coincidentally, Howard and Potter both got their undergraduate degrees—and athletic letters—at Pomona College, and their wives also shared their collegiate connection; however, the doctors did not cross paths until Chico.
“He was an intelligent guy who took a studious approach to medicine,” Potter said. “He was quite knowledgeable, and in certain areas—particularly bleeding and coagulation—other physicians would consult with him.”
Not just Chico physicians—physicians across Northern California. Howard served on the clinical faculty at UC Davis, and his reputation stretched to UC San Francisco, Stanford and beyond. In fact, Howard appears in medical textbooks: He discovered a previously undiagnosed blood condition, later named Hemoglobin Chico.
“He was an old-school doctor,” said Dr. Michael Baird, a longtime colleague and executive director of the Cancer Center. “Life really revolved around his work. He could never say no to a consult.”
Or to a patient. Unlike many physicians who make daily visits to hospital rooms, Howard would “round” on his patients three times a day: in the morning, during his lunch hour and in the evening. Nurses who called him late at night with a question or concern never got a brush-off or a brusque response. In hospital hallways, he’d stop to speak with a patient’s family or hug a staff member having a hard day.
“He wasn’t so rushed that he didn’t have time for people in their daily lives,” said Connie Rowe, Enloe vice president of nursing services, who began working with Howard in 1986 as a ward nurse. “He was so human. He wasn’t about expensive cars or fancy things; he wasn’t materialistic.
“He loved his faded old VW bus with no air conditioning. It was probably the only one in the doctors’ [parking] lot. He didn’t care. He loved that old thing.”
Yet, while old-fashioned in some respects, Howard was progressive in others. Take his treatment of AIDS patients.
Howard arrived in Chico around the time the AIDS epidemic began making headlines. “In the early days,” Potter explained, “there were voices of intolerance and superstition. More than one time, he was the person standing up in public for his patients and for science.
“That reflects his general approach as a doctor. He was always on the side of his patients. He would never give up on a patient or family. In that respect, he was a great friend, and patients appreciated that.”
It’s no wonder, then, that so many friends mourn his passing. At the memorial, in notes, on message boards and in conversation, loving anecdotes continue to flow.
Patricia Walker, a longtime nurse at the Outpatient Infusion Therapy Clinic in the Cancer Center and wife of Chico Vice Mayor Jim Walker, recalled Howard as “the cool doc who looked like Robert Redford. He always had his tie tied loosely around his neck and always had his sleeves rolled up—his signature look.” (A secret revealed by Leslie Howard: Under his signature clothes, Howard often wore a swimsuit or colored undergarments. “He loved color,” Rowe relayed.)
Every Thursday, Howard visited BloodSource to review donor files. The staff made sure to have popcorn, licorice and orange soda waiting for him. “That was his treat,” Administrative Director Julie Hoffman said with a chuckle. “He told us that [popcorn] was how he got his salt.”
Howard was quick with a quip and always ready to make someone smile. One Halloween, Rowe recalled, he saw a Cancer Center employee dressed as a cowgirl. He tipped an imaginary hat, then proceeded to dance a do-si-do with her in the hallway.
“He tried so hard to keep things light,” Rowe said, “so the staff could care for patients and not be sad.”
Howard and Potter recently welcomed two new physicians to their practice, Drs. Nicole Whitlatch and William Bonis. Baird says Enloe will need to find two more physicians to fill the void. That’s not mere flattery—the medical center literally plans to recruit a pair of hematologist/oncologists.
“We’ll never be able to replace him,” Baird said. “We’ll find people who do the same job, but none with his panache.”