Dr. Lyall Higginson works in the fastpaced Ottawa Heart Institute. But he insists words are just as important as technology and surgery when it comes to patient care.
As learned as every doctor is, with years and years of formal and on-the-job training, the most important trait they hold has nothing to do with book-smarts. It’s about emotional intelligence. And that’s the one thing that can’t be taught.
“Being a caring person is something - either you have it or not,” said Dr. Lyall Higginson, 66, who was recently awarded the Diamond Jubilee medal for his many years of dedication to advancements in cardiology.
The former chairman of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, a Carp resident who has taught hundreds of fledgling doctors and sat at the bedside of thousands of patients, said it is compassion that matters most in his work.
“No one cares how much you know,” Higginson said from his modest office at the Civic Campus. “They want to know how much you care.”
He said words matter as much as a scalpel in his work.
The fortunate thing for those who go into medicine but struggle to maintain an empathetic ear amidst the daily unfolding of triumphs and tragedies, is that the field has room for many personality types. Not everyone who wants to help save lives and better humanity need work on the front line.
He credits his Christian faith for helping cultivate his sense of compassion. He also credits a rural upbringing. Saskatchewan, with its big sky and folkies charm, is a lot like West Carleton, he said.
“I’m a little bit used to open spaces,” he said. “I like the people out there. I’m probably more used to rural living where people can be friendlier.”
Along with advancing cardiovascular techniques and research, and putting together teams at the hospital, Higginson finds time to travel north to help Inuit communities. He said the effects of westernization are everywhere. From an epidemic of obesity to cigarette addiction to food insecurity – many live off junk food, at $27 for a bag of chips and bottle of pop – the effects continue to devastate. But there is a glimmer of hope in his words.
“They are an incredibly tough and courageous people,” Higginson said.
As an educator, he said it is key to leading by example when it comes to a willingness to learn.
“I lecture every year on the attributes of a good teacher,” he said. “Enthusiasm, a love of the field you are teaching, humour, practical knowledge: those are some. But I think most importantly it’s about being open and willing to learn.”
Higginson was among 60,000 recipients of the Diamond Jubilee medal, given to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne.
“It was an honour,” he said of the ceremony that included a presentation by Carleton-Mississippi Mills MP Gordon O’Connor.