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Innovator finds elegant solutions to health hurdles

March 11, 2001

Innovator finds elegant solutions to health hurdles



Editor's note: This is the second in a weeklong series of stories profiling women who are making a contribution in the Tri-State area.

By ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Nurses and doctors aren't the only ones enraptured by the synchronicity of the emergency room.

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As a hospital administrator, Shelby Higgins of Hagerstown admired each episode of care as "a choreographed ballet" where timing means life.

Higgins never had the urge to, as she put it, "get in and muck around" with patients like surgeons do. She said she had enough contact with body fluids while raising her two children.

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Her role in the hospital was producer - "making it all happen; making sure when the curtain rises and the patient's wheeled in ... the equipment's all there ... to fix somebody," she said.

In the 1990s, after managing a hospital outside Philadelphia and a health maintenance organization in Frederick, Md., Higgins went on to conquer two health-care challenges in Hagerstown. She was executive director of the Community Free Clinic for almost three years and executive director of Hospice of Washington County for nearly five years.

Higgins, 57, started Higgins & Associates, a consulting firm, with two colleagues in March 2000. Health departments in various cities call on her to review proposals to combat, for example, AIDS or domestic violence.

She has found promising innovations: at-risk teenagers getting pagers from doctors to remind them of appointments; a center for homeless people to collect messages while they fight to earn jobs; a church-run group that greets convicts as soon as they're released from prison and guides them to the social services network.

"I love it when there's an elegant solution," Higgins said.

On she goes, offering her insight in Atlanta and Miami and Chicago and New York City.

Higgins is proud to have contributed to some solutions in her hometown.

She helped the Community Free Clinic get United Way and Washington County Gaming Commission funding. She said patient visits more than doubled during her term. Prostitutes, shelter-bound children and other destitute people got the medical care they needed.

Higgins said the hospice, which cares for the dying and their families, had four employees and an average of three patients when she took over in 1991. When she left, there were 28 employees and an average of 40 to 45 patients.

"We grew an agency," she said.

And Higgins and her husband, who divorced 18 years ago, raised a son and a daughter, which she considers a more profound accomplishment.

"When you put an awful lot of commitment, blood, sweat, tears, all these things ... it's wonderful to see it turn out ...," she said. "The reward is seeing them live your values.

"If you want immortality, raise a child."

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