About the Trailblazer Award
The Society of University Surgeons (SUS) has awarded Robert S. D. Higgins, MD, MSHA, President of Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Executive Vice President at Mass General Brigham, the 2022 SUS Trailblazer Award. Dr. Higgins will be presented with the Trailblazer Award by SUS President Dr. Rebekah White on Tuesday, February 7, 2023, at the 18th Annual Academic Surgical Congress (ASC) in Houston, Texas.
The SUS created the Trailblazer Award in 2020. This award is designed to recognize individuals who have developed a new area of academic pursuit or opened new avenues of investigation or academic thought that have the potential to be groundbreaking for years to come. The “trailblazing” contributions of the nominee can be broadly interpreted and are not limited to traditional surgical science. Nominations should specify how this individual has created a new and sustained domain of scholarship or knowledge. The SUS seeks to honor and recognize these individuals because of their embodiment of the principles of the Society and to establish role models for future generations of surgeons to honor and emulate their contributions to the science of surgery. The inaugural winners were George Yang, MD, PhD in 2020 and Julie A. Freischlag, MD, FACS, FRCSEd (Hon), DFSVS in 2021.
Dr. Higgins was nominated and selected by his peers because he is an outstanding surgeon, passionate mentor, and a pioneering leader, who serves as a role model for underrepresented minorities, cardiothoracic surgeons, and leaders in academic medicine. He is regarded as a leading authority in heart and lung transplantation, adult and pediatric cardiac surgery, and mechanical circulatory support. Dr. Higgins has distinguished himself as a collaborative leader and a proven innovator with the ability to manage complex, multidisciplinary services at world-class organizations. He has been described as a passionate advocate for research with a life-long commitment to training the next generation of exceptional people in healthcare.
Unfinished Work and the Importance of Education, Focus and Perseverance
Dr. Robert Higgin’s father was an African American physician who trained at a historically black medical school (Meharry in Nashville) in the segregated South in the 1950s but passed away in a car accident when Dr. Higgins was just five years old. Higgins reflected that, “My dad did not complete all of the work that he might have done given his untimely death and I always had in the back of my mind that I might follow in his footsteps.” Two years later after moving back to his mother’s home with his grandparents, the extended family moved into an all-white suburban neighborhood in upstate New York, only to have their new home destroyed within 24 hours by fire in what investigators termed a “suspicious circumstance.” Despite these challenges in his early life, Dr. Higgins was fortunate to attend a military prep academy at great family sacrifice—graduating as an academic star, three-sport athlete, and major of the cadet battalion in his senior year—before attending Dartmouth College. He received his medical degree from Yale Medical School, followed by eight years of training in general surgery at the University of Pittsburgh and cardiothoracic surgery at Yale, then he specialized in heart and lung transplantation, including a fellowship at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England, one of the world’s premier heart and lung transplant centers. He and his wife Molly, a former cardiothoracic ICU Nurse and transplant coordinator, have three children pursuing careers in medicine, finance, and law.
He reports that “we were fortunate to have a strong family network that created expectations for us, as young African American men in modest economic circumstances. My mom was a single parent. She worked several jobs and created opportunities for us to get the scholastic preparation we needed to succeed, and she kept us out of trouble by fully deploying us in a rigorous academic environment.” Regarding the personal challenges his family experienced growing up, he highlights that “we were taught that we should not be bitter, but that we should use adversity to instill the resolve to overcome prejudice and discrimination in our lives. That was the message. Don’t get mad; get even by your success.”
He recalled that in college, he was more interested in fraternity life and football rather than a dedicated interest in biomedical sciences. However, Dr. Higgins sustained a major knee injury limiting his playing time and he came to realize and understand the importance of preparation and his education as a premed. He realized then that this was his calling. He “doubled down” on this effort in a brutal summer semester between sophomore and junior year, when he got his best grades in Organic Chemistry and applied biology, and he never looked back. This reinforced his mother’s teaching that despite the personal challenges in their life, his lack of focus early in his college years, and renewed commitment to his academics, that he could pursue his dream and be successful. He did well on the MCAT and was on his way to New Haven.
While at Yale, he was fortunate to be introduced to several famous and influential mentors such as William Glenn, MD who was a distinguished cardiovascular surgical pioneer (the Glenn Shunt to improve blood flow to the lungs in infants). Dr. Glenn introduced Higgins to patient interactions in the clinic setting. Dr. Wayne Flye, who was a renowned immunologist, and Director of the Liver Transplant Program at Yale, was gracious in terms of mentorship and this stimulated Dr. Higgins interest in immunology and the discovery sciences, and the application of his skills through the surgical lens. He initially favored pursuing a career as a liver transplant surgeon at Pittsburgh, which at the time, was the busiest transplant center in the world with renowned surgeons like Drs. Tom Starzl and Bartley Griffith. But he became enamored with cardiovascular medicine and cardiothoracic surgery at Pittsburgh and the rest was history.
Team Building and Mentorship Have Been Critically Important
Dr. Higgins is an internationally recognized expert in heart and lung transplantation, adult and pediatric cardiac surgery and mechanical circulatory support. His pathway was filled with many areas of focused interest including adult cardiac surgery, cardiopulmonary transplantation and disparities in outcomes and Pittsburgh was just the right place with busy heart and lung transplant programs to nurture these interests. Drs. Bartley Griffith and Henry Bahnson were academic leaders who took an interest in Dr. Higgins, along with Dr. Steve Evans, they were the first persons of color to train in general surgery at Pittsburgh 1985-1990.
Dr. Higgins highlighted that among the most influential people in his early career was his future wife, Molly, who was an ICU nurse in the Cardiothoracic ICU and as a transplant coordinator she had a significant impact at every stage of his career. As a primary supporter during their training, she has been the backbone of their personal and professional career. They were married at the end of their surgical training in Pittsburgh before moving to Yale. In New Haven, his critical mentorship continued under Drs. John Elefteriades and John Baldwin. Dr. John Baldwin, who was a resident and transplant faculty at Stanford and a leading heart-lung transplant surgeon and Dr. Elefteriades mentored Dr. Higgins in the CT animal laboratory performing heterotopic heart transplants in rodents and heart and lung transplants in primates, studying novel immunosuppressive heart transplant therapies and preservation techniques for lung transplant. This original investigative work as a trainee allowed Dr. Higgins to perform multi-organ procurements and organ transplantation in the laboratory furthering his interest and passion for this field. He was later selected to pursue additional training in transplantation and went to Papworth Hospital, which is one of the United Kingdom’s largest cardiothoracic surgical programs and its main heart-lung transplant center. Mr. John Wallwork, who was the chief resident on the first human heart and lung transplant at Stanford, has maintained a lifelong mentorship role from those formative years in 1993 until the present.
Servant Leadership as an Academic in Underserved Communities
It is easy to see from these rich experiences that Dr. Higgins has benefited from extraordinary mentorship and sponsorship. As a person of color, dedicated to serve inner-city urban communities as an academic cardiothoracic surgeon and health care leader, he has been afforded great opportunities. However, communities of color have not received the same level of care that others receive and throughout his career providing care to the underserved communities has been a priority. The number of persons of color in the medical field, particularly in the cardiothoracic discipline, is relatively small, which reflects on the whole educational paradigm. Dr. Higgins explained that “elementary and high schools serving communities of color don’t have the same resources. And in those environments, if we look at kids who are developing essential life skills, like reading, writing, and math, first and second graders in these schools are already falling behind children in better-resourced educational environments. It is obvious that we need to do more at every level of education. And in addition to colleges offering programs which allow students to demonstrate their science ability, we need to make sure all students have role models, mentors, and sponsors to look up to.” Dr. Higgins relates that as one of few persons of color in this academic cardiothoracic specialty,” I think I was unique in my role since there weren’t many of us in the field and at each step of the way, I was afforded great opportunities and I had great help and support. People not only said keep doing good work, but they also had very high professional expectations and gave me a chance to participate and excel.”
Providing the Resources Needed to be Successful
Dr. Higgins’ professional reputation throughout his career has been developed as a successful program- and team-builder, someone who can solve problems through collective experience and insight. But in building teams of exceptional medical professionals, like open-heart surgery and transplant teams, the ability to have a common vision, create a game plan, execute it, and then have a great outcome is essential. He has performed over 400 transplant procedures in his career and thousands of open-heart operations, but he also built successful teams of distinction at Henry Ford Hospital, Ohio State, and Johns Hopkins.
“I was encouraged to pursue my career interests in cardiothoracic surgery and transplantation and so I went back to Detroit, which was a community serving persons of color. They didn’t have a lung transplant program, so we started one there and we served that community, and I was very proud to build a Medicare approved transplant program. Those six years at Henry Ford were an extraordinary time of personal and professional development because we built successful teams serving a minority community. That wouldn’t have happened if Henry Ford leadership didn’t believe in us and provide resources to go to Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, to get that additional training; it’s important that they provided the financial resources to support that fellowship. So, I was proud to give some of that back to that program, and the community in southeast Michigan and beyond.”
When discussing the critical role of mentorship, sponsorship and how these can affect a career path and impact interests, Dr. Higgins highlighted the current emphasis on healthcare diversity, equity and inclusion raises the question of whether we are providing adequate resources to under-represented persons in newly appointed leadership roles. He highlighted that we are all at a critical stage- “the issue is not only identifying people who have talent and access to great educational environments and academic distinction, but it’s also about giving them the resources they need to be successful.” He believes that currently what happens for persons of color, women and underrepresented minorities in medicine, particularly in his specialty, is that they may be appointed to leadership positions but have not been given the respect, authority, full resources and opportunities to be successful. It’s still an uphill battle in many environments because of implicit racism and discrimination. He stated that “eliminating racism and sexism in the academic healthcare environment to create a platform for underrepresented minority success, must include not only opportunity but also resources, mentorship and sponsorship to be successful. I would not have been successful if I had not been supported with resources at places like Rush University, Ohio State, Hopkins and now the Brigham. These are the ‘critical assets for success’ from my perspective because it’s not just about the opportunity but also about eliminating racism and sexism, changing the healthcare culture and giving diverse leaders resources and supporting their success. Many underperforming ‘less successful’ programs are under resourced, so a leader may get an opportunity, but they don’t have the resources they need to be successful. This really is the untold ‘secret sauce’ of accomplishment and success in this environment. “
What is Your Impact Factor?
At the Brigham, Dr. Higgins has responsibility to lead over 20,000 employees who are among the most accomplished in the world and to help them to be even more extraordinary than they already are. The issue of resources in underserved communities is still a concern in many areas, like Boston. Dr. Higgins explained that there are disparities in outcomes among those in underserved communities and there is a clear correlation with some of the social determinants of health. The Mass General and Brigham hospital system has a commitment to enhance their communities and have a socioeconomic and healthcare impact.
Dr. Higgins added that “eliminating disparities is not just recognizing that they exist but also providing socioeconomic resources and access to change the trajectory for those people. We saw this during the COVID pandemic, with an exacerbation of health disparities in communities of color. Hospitals just could not manage to help and that led to a hesitancy among people of color to access majority environments because they were and still are nervous about the virus and the safety of the vaccine. They were nervous about experimentation and uncertainty in a world that has often forgotten them. These are issues we have got to change in terms of how our medical systems work and I’m happy to be an advocate for that change leading a major academic medical center. So, my mission in this academic leadership role is to improve the well-being of our communities by providing resources to support the expertise, excellence and access to outstanding care and providing the academic excellence to do so. “
Pressure Makes Diamonds
Mid-career academic surgeons are often trying to determine what is the next step in their career. From Dr. Higgins’ perspective, there are a lot of talented surgeons, but the decision to move up the career ladder is a complicated journey that must balance the potential to be successful with the resources that are available. And for the most part, an improvement in the job class must ultimately be about having a greater impact.
Dr. Higgins has often been called to explore career opportunities that provide growth and develop in a leadership role. He stated that “Moving was not in our plans (just ask my wife about their academic journey). It was all about opportunity, resources and ultimately impact.” He recalls that “if given an opportunity to look at these kinds of roles, you must decide, what is your impact factor? And will it be amplified or improved by a move to a bigger, more robust academic space.” Dr. Higgins explained that this is what has driven him, to have a bigger impact to solve some of these problems in progressive leadership roles. He encourages others to think about how they measure their impact, and what are the metrics of success in a move to another academic institution.
From his perspective, progressive leadership roles require a visionary leader who can take the input of faculty and staff and learn from their input to develop a program or platform deserving of investment to help them succeed. Dr. Higgins felt that his job has always been to make everyone else successful and in doing so, the whole enterprise could be elevated. He has been challenged at times “because of the lack of vision that some people have, the inertia in the system, the lack of resources that challenge the current environment that can’t be controlled-like the pandemic, the faculty burnout and lack of healthcare workers, escalating cost of premium labor, maintaining the infrastructure, and the financial headwinds we face. As my mom said, pressure makes diamonds. We want to be the jewel in the crown of the modern healthcare environment. I have learned to invest heavily in others using the resources we have to help them build programs to be successful. So that’s my job and I look forward to doing that every day.”
Participate, Contribute, and Be Impactful
Dr. Higgins has served as the President of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, President of the United Network for Organ Sharing, President of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons, a Founding member of the Association of Black Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgeons, President of the American College of Surgeons Society of Surgical Chairs, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery as it’s cardiac chair and a long term member of the Society of University Surgeons. When participating in academic organizations, Dr. Higgins believes that one must be thoughtful and dedicate the time to contribute something substantive.
“If you are able to volunteer and contribute as requested, in turn you will be recognized as a leader in that academic pursuit or societies like the SUS.” For underrepresented minorities, Dr. Higgins feels that there must be a true sense of belonging and willingness to create opportunities for those that have diverse perspectives and different backgrounds. If the organization really believes in diversifying its membership, then it will really open the door to the opportunity to participate. But he also believes that in return, the person that gets the opportunity must perform at a high level to help eliminate the racism/sexism/discrimination of those who say that we don’t have the academic credentials or credibility in that space. “These challenges happen in our world all the time; some people question whether we are qualified to be in a leadership role. Yet we must prove that we belong. In the academic world, we must be very intentional in supporting leaders who are underrepresented in medicine to make sure that they succeed and have the tools that they need to be successful. Organizations like the SUS and the STS have to support those that are underrepresented minorities if they are to be successful.”
Active Coaching, Mentorship, and Advocacy are Critically Important
Dr. Higgins stated that “anyone can be an ally, from the majority, or a minority”. But one of the biggest challenges for underrepresented minorities in healthcare leadership is that they don’t have peer networks and support as executives. Roles in the C-Suite can be isolating with no one to provide counsel in times of challenge. In many circumstances it’s very difficult to find a trusted confidante. Dr. Higgins stated “but if we can increase the number of people of color and women who are in leadership roles and they develop the background and have common experiences, then there’s a chance we create networks that can be supportive of successful tenures. That’s what we are trying to build as a network of leaders who support each other.”
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Dr. Higgins was asked what advice he would give to others who want to pursue new areas of academic leadership pursuits or open new avenues of investigation or academic thought. He felt that people gravitate towards things they are passionate about, whether it’s healthcare disparities, health equity outcomes, translational science, or biomedical discoveries. He advised that “it has been good to step out of my comfort zone to explore areas that I am not an expert in. It may in areas like finance or discovery science that you are inquisitive about but not necessarily an expert in. I have learned about this in the last several years in roles at Johns Hopkins and the Brigham where they are extraordinary in developing innovative areas in medicine and surgery.” Dr. Higgins stated that “ultimately, you have to be a lifelong learner, and this is critically important to expand your horizons in areas you are not necessarily comfortable in or have knowledge about.”
A Big Fan
Dr. Higgins wasn’t sure if it may be surprising to people, but he is a big sports fan. He enjoys all sports but mostly team sports like football, hockey and lacrosse. He also enjoys golf and paddle tennis. He’s fond of jazz music, primarily saxophone and classical music, and greatly appreciates those who have been blessed with musical talent.
Dr. Higgins is eternally grateful to his wife and family. They have moved 8 times over 30 years to support his academic career and he thanked everyone for their contributions and he was glad that “the kids are growing up to be like their mom!” He and his wife Molly have three children pursuing careers in medicine, finance, and law. Their oldest son, John is an orthopedic surgeon in training.
The Society of University Surgeons is honored to present Dr. Robert Higgins with the 2022 Trailblazer Award at the Academic Surgical Congress on February 7, 2023, taking place in Houston, Texas. He is the true embodiment of the type of individual that this award seeks to recognize.