May 20, 2019
When moviegoers first encountered Patrick Dempsey onscreen, he played an upbeat, good-natured charmer in 1980s school-age comedies like “Meatballs 3,” “Loverboy” and “Happy Together.” Dempsey has long lost the likeable awkwardness that served those roles well and is now one of Hollywood’s heartthrobs. These days, television audiences know the wavy-haired actor best as Dr. Derek Shepherd, or “Dr. McDreamy,” on the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.”
But there’s more dimension to Dempsey than you might find in a tabloid’s “Hollywood Hunks” issue, evident by the actor’s off-screen pursuits. Picking up the torch from Hollywood racing enthusiasts like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, Dempsey embraces motorsports and in July tore up the track in a 460hp Porsche 911 GT3 Cup in Stuttgart, Germany.
When he’s not on the racetrack, Dempsey hits the road by diligently bicycling 100 miles every week. He has married that cycling passion with a personal cause—promoting integrative care and support for cancer patients and caregivers. This month, he will host his sixth Dempsey Challenge, an annual charity bike ride that benefits The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing in his birthplace of Lewiston, Maine.
Lewiston—a mill city of 40,000 whose textile plants were shuttered under hard times—and its central Maine environs are the springs from which Dempsey’s zeal for outdoor sport flows. It was along Route 4 in Maine during the 1970s that Dempsey watched the cars whiz by, planting the seeds for his motorsports enthusiasm. Naturally he couldn’t drive at a young age, so his bicycle provided “the only means for me to escape and to get from one place to another and visit a friend,” he says. “It gave me freedom.”
You’ll never catch Dempsey on a treadmill or a stationary bike. “I like the outside because I grew up here,” Dempsey says, seated at the ski lodge at Lost Valley Ski Resort in Auburn, Maine, minutes from Lewiston. Snow is out of season, and Dempsey’s daughter Talula, 12, is playing nearby while his twin seven-year-old sons, Darby and Sullivan, are running up the grassy slopes where Dempsey first nurtured his own need for speed sports as a boy.
“I started ski racing at this mountain,” he says, a wide smile building across his face as he watches his sons. “I was always free to go out and play in the woods and the older I get, I want to return to that and I want the kids to have that opportunity. I find it very therapeutic. You feel the earth. There’s a lot of energy coming from the trees and from nature.”
Dempsey and his sisters, Mary and Alicia, launched the Dempsey Center in 2008 with nearly a decade of experience as caregivers for their mother, Amanda, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1997 and fought multiple recurrences (see box on the opposite page). His mother’s diagnosis also prompted Dempsey to devote himself to healthful pursuits with even more intensity than he already had.
“I sort of amped up after it,” Dempsey says of his mother’s diagnosis, “and I would say after the birth of my children as well. You want to stay healthy in case, God forbid, something does happen to you. Your body has to be strong enough to fight it, and the best way to do that is prevention. You have to be active.”
Hope for Cancer Patients
When Patrick Dempsey’s mother Amanda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1997, the family was able to navigate many of the healthcare complexities that come with that news because Dempsey’s sister was a nurse at Central Maine Medical Center, the hospital where their mother was treated.
But the family knew that many others who are afflicted do not have access to the same resources. So they created The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing, originally set at the hospital, for patients and their loved ones. Now the family hopes the wellness center will be a model for other communities looking to create similar facilities.
The center, filled with natural light streaming through skylights and tall windows, is now set in a handsome red-brick building that once housed a shoe factory. “There’s something about these old buildings that are retrofitted and brought back to life,” Dempsey says. “You feel that soul in the brick and the structure itself.”
The center features comfortable counseling rooms and a demonstration kitchen where visitors can make Maple Balsamic Quinoa Salad and other nutritious dishes. There are rooms for Reiki and massage therapy; a health and fitness area for yoga, Tai Chi and stretching exercises; and spaces where volunteers make hats, blankets, surgical pillows and other comfort items.
There’s an exhibit of photographs taken by children of parents with cancer to help them get in touch with their feelings, empower them and build their self-esteem. Another exhibit features spiraling tears computer-generated from a single line, symbolizing a life of “twists and turns, ups and downs, but finally a thing of beauty,” according to an exhibit description.
A mobile composed of hundreds of origami sculptures hangs in the center’s children’s room. In the center’s Healing Garden room, where meditation is encouraged, smooth touchstones “for memories, for healing” are offered to visitors.
Patients and caregivers who come to the center “are heard and looked at as human beings and not a number,” Dempsey says, “and they are deeply cared for as soon as they come in. When they get hugged and embraced, I think it is transformative.”
Dempsey’s mother Amanda was a frequent visitor to the center, said the actor and his sister Mary, the center’s director, but she chose to counsel and comfort others with cancer rather than use its services herself. They said their mother was a strong woman who stayed active and never complained or put her pain on display. She died in March.
This year’s Dempsey Challenge (dempsey
challenge.org) charity bike ride to benefit The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing will be held September 27 and 28.
“At the end of the day when you finish the challenge, you don’t want it to end,” Dempsey says. “You’ve crossed the finish line but it hasn’t ended. That’s really what it’s about. Life doesn’t end. It just continues on. And I think for that weekend, and the feeling in the center, there is compassion. There is nothing better or more important in the world than compassion.”
Dempsey sees similarities in the ski racing of his youth at Lost Valley Ski Resort and his car and bike racing. For each, knowing how to turn while losing as little speed as possible, for instance, and keeping balance when weight is shifting are key. “It’s the focus more than anything else that I like,” he says. “You’re challenging yourself, not so much your opponent. You are your own opponent.”
The sports Dempsey loves help the fit and trim actor enhance and maintain his health, and one strengthens the other. Biking helps him master the extreme environment inside a race car, for example, and the 25 miles he bikes for two hours four times a week helps him develop the lower body strength needed to stop his race car with the brake and clutch.
“You deal with the G forces, lateral loads and things like that” in racing, Dempsey says. “You’re going 180 miles an hour, so you’re using a lot of energy, you’re moving constantly. Your heart rate is over 100 easily. When I’m in the car I need the lower body strength and I need the conditioning as well, because it’s physically exhausting. And the temperature in the car can be over 130 degrees. You also have to have situational awareness because you’re watching the other cars around you, and you’re being thrown around in the car. It’s very violent because of the G-loading.
“The stronger you are, the healthier you are, the more aware you are mentally, and you can stay focused for a longer time in the car,” he adds. “It’s when you start to get fatigued, that’s when you start making mistakes.”
Just as Dempsey’s New England roots have drawn him to some sporting activities, they’ve kept him from others. Although he lives a stone’s throw from the beach in Malibu, he’s not a big swimmer. “I don’t go into the ocean. I don’t surf. I think that’s probably because I grew up in Maine. You don’t really go into the ocean. It’s one thing I don’t take advantage of, but my kids do. I don’t mind running on the beach, but I just prefer riding the bike. I like the sound of it. I like the mechanical aspect of it. I like how it makes you feel.”
Earlier this year, Architectural Digest spotlighted the Malibu home where Dempsey and his wife Jillian, a makeup artist, jewelry designer and sculptor, live with their children. Architect Frank Gehry designed the home as a combined studio and residence more than 50 years ago. But many of the home’s warm touches today—sustainable elements, in particular—recall Dempsey’s Maine roots, like so much else in his life.
The “gentleman’s garden” that Dempsey fondly recalls from his Maine childhood, coupled with Jillian Dempsey’s love of organic gardening, are behind the 20 raised beds framed in reclaimed wood that the family maintains on a spacious outdoor area that was once a riding ring for horses.
“It’s really important for the kids to understand the seed-to-plate mentality,” Dempsey says. “We plant it, we raise it and we eat it. The kids see where the food comes from, and it’s healthy. You can feel the difference. Psychologically and physically, you see a big difference.”
Dempsey also replicated some of the animal life that roamed the grounds of his Maine childhood home. Among the Dempseys’ Malibu menagerie are chickens, miniature donkeys, rabbits, goats, and pigs, not to mention one rescued African tortoise and three dogs.
The Dempseys reap a harvest from their organic garden two or three times a year. Depending on the season, they grow pumpkins, squash, corn, tomatoes, peppers, berries, stonefruit, cucumbers and asparagus, and they have a cutting garden for flowers.
“We always had a garden,” Dempsey says, recalling his youth. “I had a lot of land around where I could go and get lost in the woods of Maine. I found a lot in that, and I miss that more and more the older I get. My mother was always into gardening. I was always very connected to the land. The land, to me, is church. There’s something in that that speaks to me. The further I got away from that, the land, in my 20s and 30s, the more I found sadness and depression.”
As he reflects on the fall colors that surrounded the bicyclists in last year’s Dempsey Challenge, he yearns for his New England life in days gone by. “For me, having animals growing up, and seeing the cycle of life with the animals on a farm and being in nature and the seasons, are very important,” he says. “I’m not sure I’ll stay in Malibu the rest of my life.
I’d like to travel and get back east a little more.”
That’s fine with Lewiston’s residents, who welcome Dempsey as a local hero for his annual return to the Dempsey Challenge. “You talk to people, and someone will say, ‘Oh, I took care of Patrick when he was young’ or ‘I lived across the street from Patrick,’” Crystal Dionne, 61, a local cancer survivor, said on a survivor walk during weekend festivities in the last challenge.
A Doctor's Origins
Dempsey’s roots factor into his acting, too, at least for his “Grey’s Anatomy” character. “Growing up in Maine we had one doctor in town with the little bag, and he would come to your house,” Dempsey recounts. “The country doctor can diagnose and have that relationship and intimacy.” The gentle way his character behaves with his patients is “why Shepherd is such a beloved character in many ways,” he says.
Talk of the compassion associated with country doctors turns the conversation back to the weekends in which the actor hosts scores of bike-riding fundraisers during his Dempsey Challenge, as well as the mood the Dempseys and their staff try to create at The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing in Lewiston.
Dempsey says it’s difficult to reconcile the raw, unguarded emotions that staff, caregivers, family and people enduring cancer share at the center with the more rigid behavior of daily life.
“What’s beautiful is that people are open-hearted, and when you have that experience at the center and at the challenge, the event, and you go back in the world and see how closed off people are because they have to protect themselves, it’s heartbreaking,” Dempsey says. “You know underneath there is a vulnerability and openness and goodness that just doesn’t have the room or the safety to come out.
“There’s something beautiful in feeling, because I think feeling all of the emotions that life has to offer really makes you alive. It’s when we stop feeling and we lose connections to our emotions that disease comes in. It’s okay to feel those emotions. For me it’s important to be connected, and as an actor you have to be connected to your emotions and be okay with them and feel them.”
Dempsey has endured one emotional challenge since he was 13, when he was diagnosed with dyslexia. “You’re at a distinct disadvantage,” he says of the disability. “I find other ways to learn, and you continue to learn, but it’s always a bit of a struggle. I’m terrible with cold readings. I’m getting better, because we do table readings on Grey’s, but I need to get hold of [a script] prior to the table readings so I can be familiar with what I’m saying. Otherwise it’s hard for me to concentrate and see the line completely.”
Has that challenge and the pain of his mother’s struggle with cancer made him a better actor by giving him those unique emotional insights into the human condition? So far, he says, the material he’s had to work with makes it difficult to say.
“I don’t know if I’m getting an opportunity to show fully what I’m capable of doing,” Dempsey says. “I have a very specific role on the show, but I would love to find a piece of material that allows me to show more than I have until this point, that allows me to open up more and to challenge myself as an actor, and a director and a writer who will give me the environment and the context to do it in.”
If history is a guide, whatever comes next for Dempsey will have deep roots in a little city in Maine called Lewiston that has given birth to everything he does. Immersed in his acting, cycling, motorsports and cancer activism, he’s certain not to be idle.
“I need to do all of it,” Dempsey says. “I have to do a little bit of everything. And you need to recharge from different things, you need to step back and then come back at it. It’s like the tide, the ebb and the flow. You need to let the tide come in and then go out, and you follow that.”