Ice in her veins

Former Team USA figure skater brings precision, toughness to work as UC breast cancer surgeon

Being a surgeon requires attention to detail, precision and the ability to stay in control and perform in high-pressure situations. 

For Alicia Heelan, the preparation and honing of these skills began well before she went to medical school. Heelan, MD, University of Cincinnati assistant professor and a UC Health breast cancer surgeon, is a former Team USA figure skater who has used her experiences as an athlete to help her grow as a physician.

Skating experience

Heelan began skating at a young age, moving away from her family at the age of 12 to focus on her craft. She routinely spent around eight hours a day training during her teenage years.

“I didn’t attend school in the typical fashion as a result, but the value of education was still instilled in me, as I was not allowed to skate if I didn’t perform well on my schoolwork,” she said. 

Her hard work paid off when she earned a spot on the Team USA figure skating team in 1999 competing both in singles and as a pairs skater with partner Eric Leser on the team through 2003. Leser also pursued a career in medicine after hanging up his skates and now practices emergency medicine in Chicago.

“I still look back at those days with pride and gratitude, especially the privilege of representing my country,” Heelan said.

Alicia Heelan stands on the ice ready to compete

Alicia Heelan, MD, competed on the Team USA figure skating team from 1999 to 2003 before going to medical school and becoming a breast cancer surgeon. Photo provided by Alicia Heelan.

While she never competed in the Winter Olympics, Heelan said she is grateful for the experiences figure skating offered her.

“Skating provided me with so many opportunities and taught me so many life skills. I had the opportunity to travel around much of the U.S. and to many other countries to compete, exposing me to all types of people and cultures,” Heelan said. “I developed friendships with people whom I am still close with to this day, more than 20 years later. I learned the value of hard work, determination and perseverance.”

Transition to medicine

ALICIA HEELAN WITH UC LAB COAT   ONCOLOGY SURGERY

Alicia Heelan, MD. Photo/University of Cincinnati.

Even with a demanding training schedule, Heelan said she was always interested in science, particularly anatomy and physiology, as early as elementary school. She began to first think about the possibility of a career in medicine while dissecting a frog in high school.

After an injury ended her career in figure skating, her desire to become a doctor was confirmed while majoring in kinesiology at Gordon College in Massachusetts. When it came time to choose a specialty while in medical school at George Washington University, Heelan said she was drawn to a procedure-based specialty like surgery but also enjoyed complex decision making and developing long-term relationships with patients.

“I found that breast surgery married all of these things together in addition to being incredibly rewarding,” she said. “I very much enjoy taking care of patients during what is an uncertain time in their life and being able to see them through to cure.”

Parallels in careers

Heelan says her training as an athlete prepared her well for a career as a surgeon. The long days and hard work, day in, day out, taught her mental and physical toughness she carries to this day in her work, she said.

“I believe that being an athlete is a perfect parallel to being a surgeon. You do a lot of training of your mind and body to be able to perform when the time is right,” Heelan said. “I have spent innumerable hours training to be a surgeon, working on perfecting my surgical skills and knowledge, so that when my patients are on the table and the pressure to perform is on, I am prepared to do the best that I can.”

Just like when she was training as an athlete, Heelan said she also continues to work every day to fine-tune and improve her surgical techniques. 

“I find operating even more rewarding than being on the ice because it also requires me to utilize my intellect,” she said. “And the reward of curing a patient of cancer is far greater than any gold medal.”

Featured photo at top: Alicia Heelan competes with partner Eric Leser. Photo/provided

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The University of Cincinnati is classified as a Research 1 institution by the Carnegie Commission and is ranked in the National Science Foundation's Top-35 public research universities. UC's medical, graduate and undergraduate students and faculty investigate problems and innovate solutions with real-world impact. Next Lives Here.

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