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Orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Spieker: time to shift gears

November 23, 2018

Dr. John Spieker saw his final patient last week. After a 34-year career as an orthopedic surgeon and acupuncturist that included 14,000 operations and 160,000 office visits, he said it’s time to move on.

“I’ve treated a lot of people with hip fractures, and I never heard one of them say they wished they had worked another weekend. They see me when they can’t travel anymore. I thought about that. I see lots of docs working into their 70s and they’re doing fine. But that’s not what I want to do.”

At 65, Spieker is ready to shift gears, literally and figuratively. He has eight bicycles and eight off-road motorcycles. “Hey - they’re like shoes - every one of them has a different purpose. And yes, I do tend to go overboard.”

No one who knows John Spieker will argue with that. But he comes by it honestly. “My older brother is a molecular biologist. He likes motorcycles too. He has 30 of them.”

Spieker has already started training for his first big retirement adventure. He plans to bicycle across the United States next April, starting in San Diego and ending in St. Augustine, Florida. “They call it the Southern Tier. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll ride back here from St. Augustine. Just have to wait and see.”

He’s been riding a 60-mile loop around the Inland Bays with a Surly Long Haul Trucker loaded down with gallon jugs filled with water to simulate the load he plans to carry. “The bicycle and gear weigh about 100 pounds. I’ll be riding three to four hours a day to get ready.”

When he heads east from San Diego, Spieker plans to put in about 100 miles a day. Finish in about 30 days. “I’ll be riding by myself. That’s just the way I am. Want to go at my own pace. It’s not a sightseeing trip,” he said. “I get into a zone and stay there.”

Spieker said he’s apprehensive about riding on the roads. “I was riding behind a guy who was killed on Route 1 several years ago, heading toward Indian River Inlet. I was 50 yards back. A car hit him. A guy fell asleep at the wheel.”

Spieker gave the stricken cyclist CPR for 20 minutes until an ambulance arrived. “But he was gone. He was gone when I first got to him. I talked to his wife and let her know that her husband - he was a doctor, too - wasn’t alone. Many people stopped to see if they could help. I saw the best in people that day. It restored my faith in them.”

An earlier life-changing crash

A crash earlier in Spieker’s life changed his career trajectory and put him on the path to becoming an orthopedic surgeon. “I had finished my undergraduate work at Rutgers and was on my way to earning a PhD in organic chemistry at Columbia. I was a runner in those days. Nationally ranked in the 400-meter hurdles. No. 18 in the world.”

A young, drunk hit-and-run driver ended all of that in 1976. He struck Spieker, breaking his pelvis and landing him in the hospital. “I couldn’t run after that, but after that injury I saw that you could recover, and I wanted to be part of it.”

Still, the organic chemistry came in handy. For the next nine years, starting with four years at Rutgers medical school, Spieker changed his focus to orthopedic surgery. He paid for all of it himself by working nights and weekends for Merck pharmaceutical company.

He started practicing in Dover at age 34 and a couple of years later accepted an invitation from Beebe’s lone orthopedic surgeon at the time, Dr. Jim Marvel. “Jim had a national reputation, and I was aware of what he was doing. He wanted to build Beebe’s orthopedic surgery department and has done a great job. I’m proud to be part of what has become a nationally ranked program. Sixteen or 17 years ago I helped recruit Dr. Choy, and he continues to do great work.

“I love the immediate gratification of orthopedics. We fix them. People get up and walk. I love what we can give back. And it’s nice that in a small community, one person really can make a difference. It’s been a wonderful career here. The people and the docs are so friendly. I remember early on I went to a local guy and bought a gun safe. I didn’t have a way to get it home, so he just handed me the keys to his pickup truck and said bring it back when I was done. Hey, I’m from New Jersey. You don’t do that there.

“The trust - it’s really remarkable. But we’re starting to lose that small-town feel. Beebe has grown - so good in many ways. But I was their 69th doctor. Now there are more than 300. We could all know each other back then. Now, not so much.”

So what’s next?

Spieker said he and his wife, Kerry - also in the medical profession as a critical care cardiopulmonary nurse - will be moving to Tucson, Ariz., in a few weeks for the winter. “Kerry may do some nursing out there, but I’m moving on. I’ll let my malpractice insurance lapse. I don’t want to do orthopedics in any kind of lesser way.”

He said Arizona appeals to him because there’s so much outdoor activity, including three or four different organized bicycle rides every day. “And plenty of off-road motorcycling too. People give me grief sometimes, saying I’m too adventurous. But I see them sitting there smoking a cigarette and eating a fatty meal and wonder who’s at greater risk? I really wish people would take greater control of their own health.”

He’s also looking forward to learning blacksmithing and glassblowing.

Through his career, Spieker has done lots of arthroscopic knee and shoulder surgeries, as well as spine, total joint and hand surgeries. “Those are all sub-specialties now. I’ve been in a great practice at Orthopaedic Associates of Southern Delaware. They have everything covered. I’ve become unnecessary. But I’m happy knowing it will all be done right.”

  • Dennis Forney has been a journalist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972 and has been writing his Barefootin’ column for The Whale and then the Cape Gazette for more than 30 years. Contact Dennis at dennisforney@capegazette.com.