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ON THE SCENE: A great doctor and a brilliant canoe racer

September 22, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Dr. Edward Hixson, a retired surgeon at Adirondack Health, owes his life to the quality of care received at the hospital, combined with the quick response of the Whiteface Mountain Ski Patrol and the Wilmington fire-rescue service. Mid-February last winter, after a morning of skiing, Hixson, sitting on a bench on the first floor of the Base Lodge, was having a hard time getting up. A stranger next to him asked if he was feeling all right.

"No," he replied. "I think I'm having a stroke. Would you get the ski patrol?"

The man did so, informing them of Dr. Hixson's situation. They arrived and told him that the Wilmington rescue was en route. By the time they got him to the outer door, the rescue service had already arrived and alerted the hospital to Dr. Hixson's condition. When Hixson reached the hospital, they were ready to give a CAT scan of his brain to determine if his stroke was hemorrhagic or not. They had a neurologist specialist online, ready to review the results with them. They knew they had two choices to address his condition, and making the wrong decision could have fatal consequences.

Article Photos

Dr. Edward Hixson poses with the canoe in which he won many races.
Photo provided — Naj Wikoff

My first connection to Dr. Hixson was about 55 years ago, when he beat me in a canoe race; the only consolation was that he beat everyone else as well. Hixson had a couple of things going for him. One was that he and his partner switched sides about every seventh stroke and, when going around corners, stayed on the same side. No one else was paddling like that. After the race, he told me that this technique meant that every stroke taken kept the board going forward. I also noted he took lots of strokes, about one every second, and that he pulled the paddle out of the water when it got to his waist.

Hixson, who was very generous with his knowledge, told me that the first half of the stoke had the most power and paddling this way kept the boat from surging. My partner and I adopted his technique, and our times improved. He still beat us. Like him and his team, we ran flat-out over the portages, and that, too, improved our time, but not enough. The other asset he had, aside from being in terrific shape and extremely competitive, was his boat. Just under 16 feet, it was a delta-shaped light wooden canoe that he polished with car wax. In time, I bought it from him, and when paddling, that boat was never defeated.

Last weekend, I brought the canoe over to his home on St. Regis Lake. He had not seen it since he decided to quit racing and focus his time and energy on becoming a surgeon. The boat was hand-made by Moisie Cadorette, then working out of his garage in La Tuque, Quebec. With it, Hixson took 10th place in the La Classique de Canots de La Maurice, ranked as one of the top three toughest canoe marathons in North America, a 118-mile race from La Tuque to Three Rivers. Doing so, starting from last place, he beat all the top Quebec teams, losing only to such legendary paddlers as Gene Jensen, who invented the bent-shaft paddle.

He shared with me the circumstances around the first time he raced in Placid, then as part of the annual Memorial Day Race that started at the Iron Bridge on the River Road and ended at the Monument on Route 73.

"Warren Witherell was the hot paddler then," said Hixson. "Everyone expected him to win. They had no idea who we were. Everyone expected him to clean up. When it was time for us to start, my partner was distracted talking to a couple of girls and actually throwing down a shot of bourbon. I screamed at him, 'Rush, for Christ's sake; we're starting!' So, he hopped down, jumped in the boat, almost tipping it over, and we started down the river. We ended up beating Witherell by about 10 seconds, not very much. They hated us, as they thought of us just as a pair of kids and Warren was the god of Lake Placid. When it was announced that we were the winners, there was this big silence. No clap, no nothing."

"I started racing in college," said Hixson. "I knew how to canoe. I paddled all my life. I raced with Rex Brown for quite a time, and he was pretty good. I raced a bit with Clyde Smith (well-known photographer) and started racing with Pete Siersma. We spent a summer racing in Quebec. In the U.S., all the racers were amateurs; in Quebec, they were all professionals. This one guy Peterson, his arms were bigger than my thighs. They came from all over Canada. We were working for Canadian International Paper, and we got the boat in June and raced all summer."

Hixson's skill as a paddler is evident by the many trophies lining the shelves of his living room and office. His skills as a surgeon are well known by the many patients he treated over the decades he has worked out of Adirondack Health in Saranac Lake and its surrounding clinics. He went to med school at University of Vermont, where he did his residency and internship as well working there for about 12 years. He then enlisted in the Army. After his return, and completing his training as a surgeon, he came to Lake Placid to see if there were any opportunities. Hub Bergamini showed him around the Placid Memorial Hospital.

"I liked the idea of living over here, but they didn't need a full-time surgeon," said Hixson. "It was from a call to Dr. Fritz Decker that I learned there was a hospital in Saranac Lake. Neither Hub nor George Hart ever mentioned that there was a hospital over here. I remembered from racing in the Hanmer that there had been a hospital in Saranac Lake as I had competed against Fritz. He told me that they were looking for a surgeon and were planning to give me a call."

Decker provided Hixson an office, taught him how a medical partner practice worked, and gave him the opportunity to join his group practice. Carl Merkel, the senior partner, told him that insurance companies could take two months or longer to pay for services, and offered him a loan to help him get settled until his earnings stated to come in - an offer Hixson gratefully accepted.

"Carl said, 'You're probably going to need some money.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'How much do you need? Is $10,000 enough?' I said, 'Yeah.' So, he wrote me a check. I said, 'When, do I have to pay you back?' He said, 'Whenever you can. No problem, you'll do well.' I paid him back as soon as I could. That was it, share and share alike. You did the work, put the money in a pot, paid the bills and expenses, and divided what was left over amongst the partners. Can you imagine that? Medicine doesn't work that way now!"

We talked on for hours about his three expeditions to Everest - two from the north side through China, the first to do so since Mallory - and the advances in surgery he has helped usher in along with the great strides taking place at Adirondack Health. He is especially proud of the new surgery suite at the Lake Colby campus and the clinic under construction in Lake Placid.

The doctors, nurses and staff at Adirondack Health have wonderful stories to tell. The medical center and its clinics seem to be a magnet that attracts highly skilled professionals who care deeply about the people and the community. And as his health challenge of facing a stroke demonstrated, this team - combined with the highly trained volunteers and professionals in the rescue squads, ski patrols and other first responders - provide great service. After consulting with the neurologist, they gave Hixson the clot buster, and shortly he was back to normal.

"Within 20 minutes I was clear as a bell," said Hixson. "The secret is speed, how fast you get the treatment. To have a stroke at Whiteface and my transfer to Adirondack Health so well organized like click, click, click, consult via Skype with the neurologist in Santa Barbara, and then getting the clot buster. That's why investing in Adirondack Health and our supporting emergency services matters. We've got it as good as anywhere else in the world!"

Through telemedicine and digital technologies, Adirondack Health is connected to the most highly skilled medical experts in the nation 24-7. They know what they can do well, which probably is about 90 percent of what ails anybody, and are fully capable of getting you to best specialty hospitals when that need arises. Bottom line - the value of Adirondack Health comes down to people like Dr. Edward Hixson, one of the many skilled and caring people who save lives and trust with equal measure their colleagues. As for our racing canoe, it will one day go to Adirondack Experience, but I think it has a race or two yet to win before that happens. Maybe the 90-Miler. That would be a good finish to its career.



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