P&S Journal: Winter 1998, Vol.18, No.1
Dr. Margaret Heagarty: Advocate for Harlem's Children
By Kristen Watson
Whether a newborn infant afflicted with crack, a child injured in the
playground, or an otherwise healthy child in the Harlem community, Maggie
Heagarty has been an advocate for each and every child, says Dr. John
Driscoll, chairman of pediatrics at P&S and director of Babies Children's
|Slowly, Dr. Heagarty
began to change what she could, first by recruiting young and eager faculty
who were attracted by her determination and vision then by reorganizing
the delivery of child health care in the neighborhood. She introduced modern
neonatology to the hospital and neonatal mortality soon dropped to a rate
comparable with New York City as a whole.
Dr. Margaret Heagarty received one of three Ronald McDonald Children's Charities Awards of Excellence in 1993. Also honored that year were Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and Dr. Gerald Clark Yost, who spent 32 years with the Indian Health Service to improve the health care for native American children. The award honors dedicated individuals whose pioneering work has made an outstanding contribution to the lives of children. Dr. Heagarty donated her $100,000 award to the pediatrics unit at Harlem Hospital Center.
|"In the early to mid-1980s
we found these problems on our doorstep, and they had to be dealt with.
The cocaine epidemic also resulted in an escalated amount of violence and
trauma. Now the cocaine problem has moderated, but HIV continues to be a
Despite the hospital's location, high drama emergencies are not the only kind of cases she sees.This is a community hospital, says Dr. Heagarty. We see a full range--good and bad, hilarious and tragic. I used to compare it to 'Hill Street Blues,' but I guess that's outdated now. That show was about a ghetto precinct made up of devoted people.
Harlem Hospital is a community hospital in every sense of the word. It is the largest employer in Harlem, and the majority of employees also live in the community and work at the hospital for an average of 20 years or more. Everyone seems to know one another in this warm and friendly environment.
Dr. Heagarty says the hospital is not looked upon as an equal by other hospitals because it is a community hospital even though, she stresses, "the faculty of Harlem Hospital Center are faculty of P&S. The research and services are not performed in a laboratory and will not win Nobel Prizes, but they are serious attempts to resolve serious problems.
Any kind of medicine in an urban environment requires committed, caring people who care about the least fortunate of the population, says Dr. Barbara Barlow, professor of clinical surgery, chief of pediatric surgery, and a close friend of Dr. Heagarty's (the two doctors shared an office when Dr. Heagarty first came to Harlem). Harlem Hospital physicians are paid very little in comparison to physicians elsewhere, says Dr. Barlow.No one works here for the money: The motivation is totally different.
Dr. Heagarty believes that growing up poor is the greatest danger to the children in her community (the median annual household income in Harlem is $8,000). "With poverty comes substandard housing, poor education, and a lack of access to health care. What's Mae West say? 'I've been rich and I've been poor--rich is better.
A Forte for Finding Resources
Dr. Heagarty's forte is navigating the channels of negotiation and obtaining
funding for community programs. In addition to keeping the pediatrics
service in order, she has managed to assist in putting together and maintaining
a school health program, a network of five neighborhood satellite health
clinics, an injury prevention program, and a group home for HIV-infected
children. Without the in-school and neighborhood clinics, the majority
of children in the community would not receive medical attention because
most do not have insurance. Thanks to Dr. Heagarty's help in obtaining
grants, for example, Dr. Barlow received $1.2 million from the Robert
Wood Johnson Foundation for her injury prevention program, designed to
change the physical and social environment for children in the community
by creating safe play areas, getting drugs off the playgrounds, and giving
kids a place to go and creative things to do. The program maintains a
bicycle shop in which kids build and repair their own bikes, an art program,
a dance program with a troop that performs around the world, a Little
League, 18 safe playgrounds (with three more being--or about to be--built),
in-school seminars, and a pregnancy prevention effort. Incarnation Children's
Center is a former convent converted into a group home for HIV-infected
children. (See sidebar.)
A Gifted Storyteller
With 96 published articles to her credit (and counting), one might say Dr. Heagarty has a gift with words.She writes beautifully, Dr. Barlow says. She'll tell you it's her Irish genes; she claims to be related to James Joyce.She is also an effective and inspirational public speaker, which she proved as a guest speaker at the Central Park memorial for Princess Diana last September.
Dr. Heagarty met Princess Diana when she visited Harlem Hospital's pediatric AIDS unit in 1989 and again in 1995. In her speech, Dr. Heagarty noted that the Princess of Wales was " . . . one of the first to draw attention to the problems and needs of those with the disease both in her own country and here, adding that she "picked up, cuddled, and embraced the children at a time when most were afraid to even be in their presence.
Feet Planted Firmly in the Hospital
Although Dr. Heagarty is well-known in her field and appears before Congressional committees regularly, her feet remain planted firmly in the hospital. She is a member of numerous state and national medical organizations and has received many awards and other prestigious recognition for her work, including a Second Century Award from Harlem Hospital Center (1990), a Martha May Eliot Award from the American Public Health Association (1994), honorary doctorates from Iona College (1989) and Yale (1995), the Ronald McDonald Children's Charities Award of Excellence ($100,000 for the Harlem Hospital pediatrics unit, 1993), and a Distinguished Alumna Award from West Virginia University School of Medicine (1997).
Somehow, with her foot in so many projects, Dr. Heagarty manages to step out of the picture once programs are put in place and allows others to take the reins. She is a true leader, not a manager. Dr. Heagarty updated the hospital's neonatal unit before Dr. David Bateman, assistant clinical professor and attending in pediatrics at Harlem Hospital, came on board and then passed the responsibility on to him.She rarely sets foot down here anymore, Dr. Bateman says. She allows me to run things in neonatal. Dr. Heagarty has an ability to mobilize the energies and talents of others--as much as she uses her own--to fulfill her vision.