Neurologist Dr. Gail Austin Cooney shared a little-known fact about herself with Palm Beach Atlantic University students this week.
Though perhaps best known as being part of the team that helped Hospice of Palm Beach County become one of the nation’s leading providers of end-of-life care, Cooney revealed that she loves to dance and that she recently performed with a local modern dance company.
Dance was something she enjoyed doing in college, and back then “it was a bit of an unexpected treat,” said Cooney, now chief medical officer of access services for TrustBridge, the community nonprofit that provides support for families facing serious illness.
After devoting herself to her career and family for the past 40-plus years, Cooney said she was thrilled to finally be able to follow her passion for dance. “If you can find your passion, go for it,” she said. “It has made all the difference in my life.”
Passion, along with resilience and patience, were the key points of her message to the more than 30 students gathered in the Rinker Board Room of the Warren Library.
Cooney was the latest guest speaker invited to the President’s Lyceum, a speaker series in which visitors who have distinguished themselves in various professions come to present their insights and experiences in a discussion with PBA students.
A Palm Beach resident, Cooney is well acquainted with PBA. In 2010, the University honored her as a Woman of Distinction.
Cooney is an advocate for providing hospice care to everyone who wants and needs it. She has held several prominent positions in the field locally and nationally before taking on her current role.
She said resilience has been a constant theme in her life, from her years as a student in the Mayo Medical School to her training in internal medicine and neurology at Emory University. Back then, neurology was still an emerging field, she said.
Before she and her husband, John, moved to West Palm Beach in 1984, she did a neuro-oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Once settled in Palm Beach County, she found a good job, she said. But she decided to take a position with Hospice at a friend’s urging.
She was reluctant at first, but soon “I was in a place where what I did made a huge difference to the patients and the families that I touched,” she said. “It has turned in to the most extraordinary career.”
Cooney said she is pleased that today more young doctors are entering the growing field of palliative medicine.
She also has demonstrated resilience in her personal life. She received a diagnosis of metastatic ovarian cancer in 2008. She recovered, but the cancer has returned twice since that time.
Through her line of work, she knew the grim statistics. Sixty percent of those diagnosed with ovarian cancer die within a year, and 75 percent die within five years, she said.
“Being a physician and especially a physician who works in end-of-life care, I hold my survival gently,” she said. “I wear it as a loose garment because I know that it’s not something that’s promised to me.”
She said her faith has grown over the last eight years “because I have been forced to turn over things that I couldn’t control, and to realize that I could live my life well no matter what.”
Cooney said she is not a patient person by nature. “Sometimes patience is forced on me,” she said.
However, it has been worth it “being able to look back and see the ways in which God has brought me to places I never expected to be.”
Cooney also invited the group to her next dance performance of Handel’s Messiah, which will be held on Saturday, April 1, at Memorial Presbyterian Church in West Palm Beach. The group will present an 11 a.m. show for children as well as a 7 p.m. performance. For information, visit www.dkdcdiyprojects.org/season.