Remembering A Good Doctor And Better Person: Dr. Neil Capretto

The Medical Director of Gateway Rehab died over the weekend

John Shumway
June 11, 2018 - 12:17 pm
Dr. Neil Capretto

Andrew Limberg


Putting others first is a noble goal which despite our best efforts few of us consistently attain.  That is not the case with Dr. Neil Capretto who always put the needs of others before his own. Even as he battled cancer, to his dying day he was still reaching out to help others.

The date escapes me now; the emotions of the night do not.  My next door neighbor’s daughter had just overdosed on heroin and was found by her mother unresponsive on her bedroom floor.  Fortunately her mom is a nurse and was able to save her daughter and get her to the hospital where she was fully revived.  But it was late that night when my neighbor called looking for help.  Once revived her daughter had been released from the hospital and her fear was a return home would mean another overdose.   I called Dr. Capretto and despite waking him up he quickly gave me instructions to get her to Gateway Rehab and he’d call ahead to have the staff ready for her arrival.

His reaction and intervention was without hesitation or reservation.  She came out of rehab better, but would later relapse. I lost count on the number of overdoes emergencies and the number of times the police and EMS were on our street. A few months after that first late night call we went through the same things again, and again without hesitation or judgement Dr. Capretto wrapped her understanding arms around her and tried to help again.

My neighbor’s daughter is no longer with us, her loss a direct result of the crisis that Dr. Capretto spent years struggling to help control.

Long before the Opioid Crisis making headlines, Dr. Capretto was sounding the alarm.  Dr. Capretto was our go to guest for all things about addictions, alcohol, drugs, whatever the topic he never paused when asked to join us on KDKA Radio.  Early on when Pennsylvania was talking about legalizing some form of marijuana and we would ask Dr. Capretto to join us, he would, but then he would always make sure the conversation include the growing opioid crisis.

Dr. Capretto was seeing the result of the opioid wave long before the rest of us had a clue and it bothered him deeply.  You could hear it in his voice, the alarm of a professional.  He was not dealing with statistics he was dealing with real lives and desperately trying to save them. 

It was Dr. Capretto who educated all of us that substance abuse and addiction is not a problem restricted to any economic or social group but impacts people in every walk of life and in every neighborhood.

There is no way to know how many lives he saved, hundreds or thousands who knows?  But what those who dealt with him know and will always remember was his caring and understanding style.   When you talked with him he made you feel like you were the only person in the world and your problem was the most important thing at that moment. And he did it with a caring style that lifted you up. There was never any embarrassment and he let you know – no matter how bleak – you were not alone.

When Dr. Capretto was diagnosed with small-cell carcinoma of the gallbladder he approached it with a matter of fact can do spirit. He would even arrange his appearances on our KDKA Radio morning news around his chemo treatments. The last time I talked with Dr. Capretto was about a week before his death.  I called to see if we could have a conversation on the radio about yet another opioid story making headlines.  He readily agreed to the interview but informed me he was in hospice care at Allegheny General Hospital.  I was mortified that I had intruded, but he was as always reassuring and actually objected when I told him not to worry about the interview.  I thanked him for his willingness and wished him the best.  That was the last time I talked to him, had I known I would have stayed on the phone and said the things I wish I could say now.

A medical professional to the core he fully understood the gravity of his condition a cancer so rare that it affects only one in 100 million people.  Yet he faced it with grace, modeling how to handle adversity to the end.  In my mind Dr. Neil Capretto was a saint living among us and transforming lives.

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