June 2, 2011
Friends recall skilled surgeon, kind man
Past chief of surgery at Cortland Regional Medical Center died Tuesday
Cortland physician R. Paul Higgins Jr. had a gentle touch that was as soft as his voice, said Dr. Stuart Gillim, who worked alongside the past chief of surgery at Cortland Regional Medical Center.
Higgins, 95, died Tuesday and is remembered by his friends for his skill as a surgeon, as well as his gentility and kindness.
Lee Taylor, former president of the medical center’s board of directors, said on Wednesday that Higgins, a close friend, was one of the most highly respected surgeons in Cortland County.
“He was a great surgeon and also a great believer in good medicine. He did a great deal on the hospital staff with the doctors, always looking to improve the medical capacity of the hospital,” Taylor said.
But Higgins was modest about his own achievements, say friends.
Higgins was educated at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, where he earned his M.D. in 1940. He volunteered for service in the Army and was sent overseas during World War II to care for wounded soldiers in New Zealand, Fiji, India and Burma.
Higgins met his wife, Elima Kearsley, in Fiji and the pair went on to have three children together. Higgins returned to Johns Hopkins in 1945, becoming chief resident there.
He returned in 1950 to Cortland, where he practiced at Cortland Memorial Hospital, the predecessor to Cortland Regional Medical Center, until 1985. He served on the Cortland County Board of Health for 30 years and was a past president of the board.
Gillim, now medical advisor for the Cortland County Board of Health, said he worked with Higgins at Cortland Regional Medical Center from 1973 until Higgins’ retirement.
Higgins was always gentlemanly to his colleagues and patients, said Gillim, and a master surgeon.
Patients who went to Higgins for delicate abdominal operations were never left with the damaged tissues that often result in those surgeries, said Gillim.
Higgins was also an instrumental part of the movement by Rotary International to eradicate polio worldwide.
William Cadwallader of Homer, who was national coordinator for polio eradication for Rotary International from 1985 to 1988, said at that time Higgins was chairman of the Cortland County Rotary Club’s campaign to raise funds for polio eradication.
The club set a goal to raise $100,000 among 139 members and ended up exceeding that by $20,000 by 1988, Cadwallader said.
Cadwallader said the money funded vaccinations for 1 million children worldwide. At the time, there were 125 endemic countries, or countries where children were dying from polio. Last year, there were just four endemic countries, Cadwallader said.
Dr. Sam Mason, a fellow physician who worked for 40 years with Higgins at the hospital, said he was a pleasure to work with and highly skilled.
“He was highly skilled, always calm and a real gentleman,” Mason said.
“When he retired I was saddened as I, the medical staff and the community, were losing the services of a very talented and highly dedicated physician,” Mason said.
Higgins was also involved with the United Presbyterian Church in Cortland.
Pastor Catherine Rieder said she went to visit him recently and recalled Higgins as being very caring.
“When I met him he was very ill and yet he seemed so interested in me, as though being interested in someone else was very important,” Rieder said.
Debbie Nadolski, executive director of the Cortland Memorial Foundation at CRMC, said Higgins was chairman of the foundation, helping to raise funds for the hospital.
A society for unrestricted donations is named the Higgins Society, in tribute to the Higgins family, said Nadolski.
Higgins’ grandfather, Francis W. Higgins, was a surgeon at the hospital dating back to 1891 and his brother, the late Dr. Edward Higgins, an ear, nose and throat specialist, practiced there from 1945 until 1981. Higgins’ father, R. Paul Higgins, was also a physician, specializing in diseases of the ear, nose and throat.
“We lost a great man, a great doctor and a great volunteer and long-time member of the community,” said Nadolski.
Dr. Kye Bang, a surgeon at Cortland Regional Medical Center, described Higgins as his mentor and role model.
“I started working with him in 1978 when I was the youngest surgeon in town. He was chief of surgery when I joined here and he was the most welcoming person,” Bang said.
Bang said over the years he followed Higgins, watching him closely and trying to emulate him as a person and a doctor.
“He was most gentle to colleagues and patients and so professional and so personal. You can feel it when you’re with him,” Bang said.
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