Duty and Sacrifice

One Veteran’s Journey to Becoming a Neurosurgeon

Veterans Day is a time to remember those who have served our country and those who continue to sacrifice for their fellow Americans. John Berry-Candelario, MD, exemplifies the tradition of service and has lived his life with a mission to give back to his country, his family and his community.

A U.S. Navy Reserve veteran, Berry-Candelario joined Novant Health earlier this year from UMass Memorial Health in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he was director of spine and spine oncology in the department of neurosurgery. He also taught neurosurgery at the medical school at UMass and completed his neurosurgery residency at Duke University Medical Center.

Berry-Candelario comes from a family of veterans, including his father, who served in the Marines during Vietnam, and he decided to join the Navy in honor of his father, as well as his own work caring for homeless veterans while a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Berry-Candelario is now working to bring remarkable care to veterans in the Charlotte area, as well as to people from all walks of life.

“I have been a person who believes in my heart that I have a purpose,” Berry-Candelario said in an interview for Novant Health’s Healthy Headlines. “I believe that purpose, as it extends into neurosurgery, is a calling for me. My job is to walk into a room and find a thread, something that connects me to my patient.”

From Seizures to Surgeon

Berry-Candelario’s calling for neurosurgery began at a young age, borne from personal experience.

As a child growing up in Washington, D.C., he experienced seizures that would never be explained by doctors. To help him deal with this, his mother would check out books on the human brain from the library. She was determined to get him healthy and to motivate him to become his own, successful person. It worked. He devoured these works and developed a lifelong interest in neuroscience.

Berry-Candelario now sees patients at Novant Health Spine Specialists – Randolph and Huntersville. He focuses on minimally invasive spine surgery and is able to remove difficult-to-treat tumors with an incision roughly the size of a drinking straw. He also works to become a partner on a broader path to wellness that might lead to care alternatives such as physical therapy, aquatic therapy, integrative medicine and other options. He likes to quote Muhammad Ali in stressing the spirit he embraces: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here (on Earth).”

Giving Up a Football Career to Save His Brother’s Life

Through his profession and his military career (through which he was recently tasked with administering COVID-19 vaccines), Berry-Candelario knows service. He also understands the power of sacrifice.

Berry-Candelario was not only gifted in academics, focusing on science, English, religion and philosophy at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He was also a gifted athlete.

He ran track and played defensive back on the football team. His junior year, Berry-Candelario was the captain of the team and led them to an undefeated season. His coaches even discussed the possibility of him trying out for the NFL. However, he was quick to drop these dreams when he was given the opportunity to save a family member.

His brother, DeAngelo Berry, was in desperate need of a new kidney, and Berry-Candelario sacrificed his senior year to donate one of his. He was given the NCAA Award of Valor for his decision but said at the ceremony there was really no other choice to make.

“I don’t know how anything is valorous when you’re asking someone to save your brother. It was such an easy decision,” Berry-Candelario told the audience.

His brother is now doing well and is himself a retired Navy veteran.

A Leader in His Field

Now, Berry-Candelario is excited to be a part of the Novant Health team and is determined to be a leader in the field.

“From the beginning of the hiring process, my family and I have felt an incredible sense of community and enthusiasm,” he said. “Novant Health invests in its people. We look forward to living and growing in this community in the days and years ahead.”

As someone with a clear sense of duty, Berry-Candelario sees himself as a servant as he makes this pledge to those who have trusted him with their life: “I’m in it to win it for you.”