Remembering Mary Hickey, associate clinical professor of physical therapy beloved by generations of Northeastern students

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I would meet Mary Hickey for lunch every couple of months or so at Northeastern’s Faculty Club with her eldest brother, Pat Doherty. The two of them would make jokes at each other’s expense. Embarrassing childhood moments were recalled.

Eyes were rolled.

Laughter ensued.

There was no mention of the cancer. It had returned in a more vicious and frightening form. Mary understood that the news of her illness would draw attention away from the students and onto her.

“What we tried to get across to Mary was that you’re not alone,” says Doherty, who had been meeting his sister for these lunches long before I started working at Northeastern in 2018. “But she didn’t want anyone knowing.”

Mary Hickey, associate clinical professor and director of undergraduate affairs in the physical therapy department at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, died one month before she would have turned 60, and seven years after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Her passing in June was mourned by the hundreds of students, teachers, administrators, and staffers who had known her for close to 25 years at Northeastern.

Thousands of patients who never heard of Mary have benefited from the scores of physical therapists she mentored over the years.

“She loved working with patients,” Doherty says. “But she firmly believed she could do more as a professor and a mentor. If you train 30 people a year, then they can see 900 patients a month. That was the way she looked at it.”

Her enduring acts of kindness and empathy were driven by a sense of purpose that was unrelenting. Mary seemed to smile as often as she blinked. It was a disarming smile bearing a depth of intelligence that neutralized the anxieties and fears of so many who were pulled into her orbit. Mary would smile and they would feel better about themselves.

“Mary has more to do with who I am and where I am today than anyone else in my career,” says David Nolan, a clinical specialist at Mass General Sports Physical Therapy in Boston, and an associate clinical professor at Northeastern. “I know for a fact that she had that same role with hundreds, if not thousands, of people who were under Mary’s wing at some point.”

Mary (Doherty) Hickey, born and raised in the Boston area among six siblings, met her husband, Andy, when they were undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she was studying physical therapy. One dozen years later, at Northeastern, she earned  a master’s in public health and a doctorate in physical therapy. By then, she and Andy were raising their twin daughters: Julia Kapp, a double Husky in communications and public health, who today serves as chief of staff for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs; and Kathryn Hickey, a physical therapist at Colusa Medical Center in California. Kathryn, also a double Husky, earned her bachelor’s in rehabilitation science and her doctorate in physical therapy.

“When you’re a doctor, you get hooded,” says Kristin Curry Greenwood, clinical professor and chair of Northeastern’s Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences. “Mary would say that was one of her proudest moments that she got to ‘hood’ Kate at graduation. She was very proud of Kate and Julia.”

Greenwood, a former student of Mary’s at Northeastern, became her work supervisor as well as one of her closest friends. She recalled the open office door that invited passersby to come in for one of the heartfelt conversations that defined Mary’s relationships.

“She taught many of us how to teach, and how to hold people accountable,” Greenwood says. “She was one of those people that made you feel heard when you spoke to her. As a student you could disagree with her, and she helped you figure out why she was right. I said to our faculty, ‘None of you should think you are the favorite professor, because every single student said she was their favorite. Even the ones you might have spent hours with—Mary was the favorite professor.’”

After Greenwood was allowed in May to share the traumatic news of the recurrence of Mary’s illness, her students and colleagues replied with hundreds of cards and other messages. Julia and Kate, who had grown up sitting in the back of Northeastern lecture halls and helping at labs as “practice patients,” were struck by the responses from former students they’d never heard of—physical therapists in private practice, professional sports, and the military.

“She had people sending her flowers. One student sent her scratch tickets wishing her luck. People sent pictures and videos of their dogs and their wives and their children,” says Greenwood, who encouraged mourners to apply Mary’s own sense of perspective. “Mary was the example of work-life balance. With her, family always came first. When I was sending out the information about the funeral services, I said, ‘Mary would not have missed her family vacation to go to someone’s funeral.’

“She was an amazing person. A huge presence that we are going to miss.”

Messages of gratitude and love from her students were read aloud during her funeral, endowing her absence with a vital sense of optimism that her spirit would live on in so many who had been influenced by her.

“I’m a notary public, and when kids would come in to have something notarized, I’d ask them, ‘Who’s your favorite teacher?’” says Dave Thornton, who recently retired from Northeastern after four decades at the registrar’s office. “The Bouvé kids would invariably say it was Mary. It was every kid, and they didn’t just say she was good. They said she was great.

“She loved all her students, but she would try to find the kid that needed the help,” says Thornton. “The kid with the 4.0 grade point average was going to be just fine; it’s the kid that might be struggling a little bit—that’s the kid that Mary sought out.”

I happened to be a distant relative of Mary’s. Within days of my arrival at Northeastern three years ago, she was meeting me for coffee on a warm morning outside Robinson Hall. She would visit my office at Columbus Place to offer ergonomic improvements to my work station (and also to catch a glimpse of the finely-appointed Northeastern newsroom).

I treasure the occasional lunches with Mary and Pat. Even as the cancer was menacing her, she embodied strength.

“She told me almost three years ago that if it flared up again, she was hopeful to get a good year or two years out of it pain-free,” Doherty says. “She started having more aggressive, experimental treatments.”

“After [the cancer] spread to her brain, in April, that was when she decided it was time,” says Greenwood. “I said, ‘Is there anything you want from your office?’ She said, ‘Just my cap and gown.’ Because graduation day was her favorite day. When I brought the gown home, her graduation purse fell out. She used to wear it under her gown and it was basically like a medical kit—Band-Aids, Tums, gum, scissors, she had it all for anyone who needed it.”

In her final days, Mary would lie in bed and respond to family and visitors with her smile. It was her last form of communication.

“She spent a lot of time with her eyes closed,” Greenwood says. “Mary never did mind a compliment. She was not modest about anything that people said in the hundreds of cards that were read to her. She would be like, ‘Yes, that’s me.’”

A short time after Thornton learned that her cancer had returned, he was among those summoned to visit Mary while she was in hospice. The bookshelf in her room had been adorned with a selection of her favorite shoes. Thornton couldn’t believe that he was saying goodbye to someone of such integrity and strength.

“We were just a mess coming out after seeing Mary, and then we caught ourselves,” Thornton says. “Because she would have said, ‘Hey! Stop it!’

“She read people better than just about anybody that I know. She was a very compassionate person, but you didn’t mess around with Mary. I learned so much from her about how to be a good person.”

In her final week of life, Mary was thinking about the upcoming semester.

“She said, ‘Katie, have you seen my lesson plan? I need to get ready,’” says Doherty. “We told Mary we would look for it. She said, ‘I don’t want to disappoint my students.’”

The Dr. Mary J. Hickey Scholarship Fund has been established to support physical therapy students at Northeastern.