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1974 Craig grad achieves success in medicine, academia

May 12, 2015

When Emily Hawkins Stahl was six years old, she was playing a computer game with a joy stick. Her father Hugh asked her if he could play.

“I said, ‘Dad, you can't play, you have foofie hands,’” she recollects. “He found this comment very amusing and then proceeded to beat me at the game. Never again did I doubt his ability to do something.”

Throughout his life, Dr. Hugh Hawkins continually surprised people, never allowing his quadriplegia to define him. The Craig Hospital graduate is a radiologist and active community volunteer. In his 25 years at the University of Cincinnati, he pursued medical education, including direct student teaching and computers in medical education, clinical practice in emergency medicine and breast imaging and clinical research on imaging utilization. He became a full professor before leaving academics to build breast imaging practices at two private institutions.

In 1974, Hawkins broke his neck in a collegiate rugby game two weeks before graduating from Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine. The accident left him unable to walk and with extremely limited use of his hands. Hawkins spent six weeks in a traction bed in Pittsfield, MA before flying to Craig.

“My family researched rehabilitation hospitals and Craig seemed to be the best choice,” he says.

With his pregnant wife Poppy by his side, Hawkins rehabilitated at Craig for three months. “People were very nice, and I still remember a lot of the therapists,” he recalls. “Craig does a good job of education and teaching the family. That’s been important for us over the years as it’s helped me stay as healthy as I could and allowed me to avoid things like UTIs and ulcers.”

Following his discharge the family moved to Cincinnati where he started his internship in Internal Medicine at Cincinnati General Hospital. He then completed his Residency in Radiology.

“There were no computers; we had to deal with films and fluoroscopy equipment. Since I have no real use of my hands, I had to make a few adjustments,” he says.

Hawkins hired a pre-med student to assist him. Each year during residency he hired a person to work with him, doing fluoroscopy, hanging films, and helping with projects. "They were essential for getting work done, especially before digital equipment," Hawkins said.

As technology changed and Hawkins took on his professorial work at the University, the program evolved, and his aides, seventy-five in all over 37 years, began working with him on academic and translational research and papers. Over 90 percent of the aides then went on to medical school.

Dr. Katie Dolbec worked with Hawkins in 2005 after her college graduation.

“My year as an Aide in Radiology gave me applicable knowledge that I took with me into my first year of medical school – I was able to participate in patient interactions, learn procedural skills, participate in reading radiology studies, and work on independent projects. Hugh provided the perfect mixture of autonomy and direction, producing the ideal post-collegiate learning environment,” she says. “I had also gained a perspective on life, removed from the march through school, that I badly needed in order maintain my focus going forward.”

Dolbec now works as an Emergency Physician and serves as a team physician for the U.S. Ski Team. “I am living my dream life, thanks in large part to Dr. Hawkins.

Hawkins believes that his injury might have helped him be a better doctor, as his specialties in emergency medical imaging and breast imaging are very patient-oriented. “I talk with patients and interact with them a lot more than other radiologists,” he says. “Being in a wheelchair might actually be helpful. When patients interact with me they have a sense that I might be able to relate to them—I can’t think of a time when it might have held me back.”

He has served on a variety of community boards and worked on projects to help individuals with disabilities, including accessible housing and playground projects.

Daughter Abigail Bliss, who was born shortly after his discharge from Craig, says that her father saw his injury and change of life as “a small blip on his radar.”

“I learned to set my sights on something and achieve it—this comes from the fact that I grew up with my dad,” she says.

Hawkins is currently working half-time as director of women’s imaging at Atrium Medical Center in Middletown, Ohio. He plans to transition to full retirement in five years. He credits his extensive support network with contributing to his personal and professional success.

“I have to say that getting over the first period of injury is difficult in terms of psyche, that’s to be expected,” he says. “Then there were ups and downs, and being in a wheelchair is something you never forget, it’s always there.”

“But if didn’t have the support of my wife, kids, my extended family and my colleagues, I couldn’t have done what I’ve done.”