By Liz Marchi
Many of you know Dr. Wilson Higgs. He was the first ear, nose and throat physician in Kalispell. He moved to the Flathead Valley in 1973 with his wife and three children. I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with Wilson over the last 10 years as a member of the Frontier Angel Fund. His keen intellect and extensive service background brought an important dimension to evaluating companies with science-based products. Our fund members universally admired him.
Last week, I spent time with Wilson and Charlotte at Immanuel Lutheran Home in Kalispell to learn more about this wonderful man and how he and his family are dealing with something that wasn’t on their life agenda: Parkinson’s disease.
Wilson grew up in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He was one of two children, and his father was an orchardist. His mother graduated from College of William and Mary in 1922. She contracted polio when Wilson was 2, and he spent several years with relatives until she was able to return home. Wilson was always a good student.
While his dad had wanted him to follow in his footsteps, his mom encouraged him to attend college and pursue his interest in science. He enrolled at the University of Richmond. In a physics class there, he met the love of his life, Charlotte. As Wilson says, “I was in physics because it was a required course; Charlotte was there because she liked it.” Charlotte earned a degree in Mathematics, and Wilson entered the Medical College of Virginia (MCV).
Charlotte was employed on the faculty at MCV. She was among the first to write programs for statistical analysis of medical research. For the first few years of their marriage, the Higgses lived on the grounds of a private psychiatric hospital where Wilson was on call six nights a week. This was his ticket through college and medical school. While at MCV, Wilson was invited to observe Charlotte’s aunt’s middle-ear surgery and knew immediately that this was his calling.
Military service took them to Anchorage, Alaska, where Wilson served three years as a flight surgeon for a fighter squadron. One of his responsibilities was to visit the remote radar sights to check the medical supplies and records. Following his military service, the couple moved to Pennsylvania, where Wilson did his residency at Geisinger Medical Center. Wilson remained on staff for one year and quickly decided he wanted to care for patients rather than teach.
Word came of an opportunity in Kalispell, which Wilson originally declined. Charlotte, overhearing the conversation, asked why he made that decision. He replied that he couldn’t ask her to move so far from her close-knit Tidewater, Virginia family, but she felt they should go to Montana, and neither of them have looked back. Charlotte says without hesitation, “He is simply the kindest and most thoughtful man I know.”
Wilson reads a lot about this disease. His memory has some blank spots, but he is patient. He does physical therapy and has become a beloved resident at the facility. He served on the Kalispell Regional Medical Center board for nine years and as chief of staff, and he is a study in grace through this life transition.
Wilson and Charlotte’s children are very engaged in his care. Charlotte believes that having a family that is informed and in agreement on the course of care has been very important in this phase of life. Charlotte initially was spending eight hours a day with him, but at the children’s insistence, she cut back to three to keep some balance in her life. Her strength and attitude are truly remarkable. There is much to learn about the essence of life and aging when one spends time with those who are facing adversity with courage, curiosity and grace, and who are still enjoying moments of sunshine.
Liz is fascinated by the various approaches to aging—from denial, to plastic surgery, to running marathons, to depression. Given our current demographics, Liz thinks there is a lot to explore, celebrate and learn from those living and aging in the Flathead Valley. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org