Le Bonheur's New Leader: 'We're All in This Together'
By JUDY OTTO
"I can't imagine a better reason to get out of bed than to go and do good things for children," said Michael Wiggins, the new President and CEO of Le Bonheur, while reviewing the career path that led him from an early focus on engineering to leadership at what U.S. News & World Report lists as one of the nation's best children's hospitals.
Second thoughts while still an undergraduate at the University of Alabama-Birmingham moved Wiggins toward a bachelor's degree with majors in quantitative methods and management of information systems.
"Coming out of school I had two job offers: as a business analyst . . . or at a healthcare organization, working in their quality improvement department," he said. "I really saw healthcare as something that had a larger community impact - almost a ministry aspect to it."
His early role as Quality Improvement Coordinator at Children's of Alabama evolved rapidly into leadership positions there and at other health centers across the South, including Children's Health System of Texas, where he served prior to accepting his current role at Le Bonheur in April.
A brief departure to work in adult healthcare lasted just long enough for him to recognize that he wanted to resume his pediatric focus: "All healthcare providers are driven by altruism and the desire to do good things for the community, but that seems to reach an accelerated level in pediatrics."
Wiggins indicates, for example, the educational and research focus that typically characterizes children's hospitals - especially Le Bonheur, with its strong partnerships with University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Campbell Clinic and Semmes Murphey Clinic, resulting in "some very robust research programs."
His quarter-century in the healthcare field has allowed him to witness some amazing advancements. "There are children now living into adulthood that, a generation ago, never would have survived," he said.
He points to premature infants weighing barely a pound in Le Bonheur's neonatal intensive care unit and cites the recent ground-breaking success of a Le Bonheur surgeon who was the first to successfully create an anatomical airway and voice box for a patient with total laryngeal agenesis due to congenital high airway obstruction syndrome (CHAOS) identified in the womb.
"They're identifying these issues before the children are even born -- so that they can be prepared truly, at birth, to begin to intervene. To be able to support what they're doing is just incredibly rewarding," he said.
Wiggins acknowledges with gratitude his CEO/presidential predecessor, Meri Armour, during whose 13-year tenure Le Bonheur experienced increased funding and recruitment, and with a long list of accolades won.
"I'm very fortunate that (she) left me with an organization that is very healthy and heading in the right direction."
In fact, being selected for that leadership role at Le Bonheur is one of his proudest achievements, which he compares to "that NFL coaching job" sports professionals dream of.
His vision for Le Bonheur includes:
*Improving the health status of all children -- not just those receiving care at Le Bonheur. "We also want to be focused on the other things that are important to kids being healthy-- strong, safe communities, good education, nutrition, things that impact their long-term success in life," he explained.
*Enhancing Le Bonheur training programs through its partnerships with UTHSC and continuing to build endowments to support research that elevates the quality of clinical programs.
*Being advocates for children. "The majority of the children whom we take care of are Medicaid beneficiaries. As we see potential changes in Medicaid that are going to have a big impact on children, we're going to continue . . . making sure they have good access to healthcare."
*Being good stewards of available resources and pursuing additional possibilities. "We're trying to build elite clinical programs on a shoestring budget, so we continue to work with the community (whose members are) willing to invest in us from a philanthropic standpoint."
Because of the advances in clinical care, he sees many children living into adulthood with childhood diseases. Although children's hospitals typically offer their services only to those 21 or younger, "there are certain childhood conditions that adult care providers are just not used to taking care of," he said.
Cystic fibrosis patients older than 30 may still receive care at some level, and patients with childhood heart conditions that were repaired surgically might also continue to receive care even into adulthood, on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Reflecting on his past success, Wiggins notes that each community where he has served has its own culture. "But what I've found here in Memphis has been extraordinary. Even though all children's hospitals are special places, the passion that our Le Bonheur team has for caring for children and their families is beyond even what I've experienced in other children's hospitals. The level of collaboration with medical leadership and the physicians has been phenomenal, as well. To be in a community that so loves and reveres Le Bonheur as an institution has been so rewarding!"
Being a parent (with Robin, his wife of 21 years) to three school-age children may have sensitized him to the stresses other parents face when a child is ill, he notes. "I think perhaps being a father helps me to be a better leader for a children's hospital."
What has his career taught him to date? "We're in this together. I've seen too many organizations struggle with an 'us vs. them' issue -- whether 'physicians vs. administration,' 'hospital vs. whomever.' We're all trying to accomplish the same thing - that is, to help our community be as healthy as it can possibly be. Finding ways to collaborate and work together will benefit all of us."