Somewhere between his a-little-wild-and-crazy childhood and his discharge from the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman, Dr. James Mickman decided he wanted to not just make people feel better — he wanted to serve.
Boy, did he serve.
From treating the sick in refugee camps in Southeast Asia to serving the homeless in Minneapolis, Mickman dedicated his knowledge, enthusiasm and seemingly endless energy to restoring community one patient at a time.
Mickman, 59, died Easter Sunday after battling a brain tumor for several years. Hundreds of friends, family and community members attended his funeral. They came to mourn his death, longtime friend Blair Anderson said. “But not in a sad fashion. We celebrated a wonderful, giving life.”
He grew up in Fridley, with what younger brother Chris Mickman called “classic middle-kid syndrome.” He was always doing things to get attention — whether it was roughhousing with his siblings or drilling a hole in the wood-shop door.
“He was always, always in trouble,” Chris Mickman said.
It was during his time in the Navy, his brother and others say, that he harnessed his energy to make a difference in the world.
After his discharge, he attended medical school at the University of Minnesota, “earning mostly A’s,” his brother said. “He wanted to be the best.”
Mickman went on to serve a residency at Hennepin County Medical Center and a fellowship at the U. Afterward, he became a “camp doc” for the American Refugee Committee in Southeast Asia for a year. After returning to the United States, Mickman embarked on a 25-year career with HealthPartners that was filled with volunteerism.
He worked on numerous community boards and volunteered with Minors Asia, the Hennepin County Homeless Project, People Serving People and with First Universalist Church. He worked as a Tibetan Refugee Resettlement doctor, as well as a doctor to El Salvador hunger strikers. He worked for peace, his brother said.
Said Anderson, who met Mickman in medical school and is also a HealthPartners physician: “He had the desire to be useful. He always had to have a purpose. Whether it was sitting out at the grill or going to a church meeting, he had to somehow be contributing.”
Often, that contribution meant rolling up his sleeves to help the community’s neediest people.
“After a day at the office, he’d go to the homeless shelter,” Anderson said. “He did that his entire career. Even when we were in med school together, we would go to the Cedar Riverside People’s Center to see patients.”
Such serious work didn’t dampen Mickman’s love of life, Christopher Mickman said. His brother was a talented storyteller who lived with gusto and was in terrific physical shape. All of that would be tested in July 2008, when his brain tumor was diagnosed.
At the time, doctors gave Mickman about 14 months to live. He survived for more than four years, with energy and good humor, Chris Mickman said.
After his diagnosis, he helped other brain tumor patients navigate the health care system and helped set up a brain tumor center at HealthPartners.
He is survived by his wife, Sarai Brenner, daughters Emelia and Sophia, son Daniel, mother Lucy, brothers John and Chris, and sister Beth. He was preceded in death by his father, John Victor, brother Mark and sister Jody. The family is planning a bit of a Viking funeral for Mickman later this summer, Chris Mickman said. They are designing a small Viking ship to help him on his journey to Valhalla.