Kelvin Hickman: The Ballast in Glenda's Life

Kevin HickmanAs every physician well knows, the career is a demanding one, requiring loved ones to be supportive and nurturing when patients often require more time than there are hours in the day.  What happens when the doctor's specialization is even more focused on providing the most giving and loving care to patients during end of life challenges, when there is no set schedule? It requires a partner in life, who quietly, patiently and confidently understands that one's spouse is needed more by others during their greatest time of need.  It takes a special man to tirelessly support the efforts of his wife to ultimately help the greater good — and that is exactly the man we find in Kelvin Hickman.

What makes this man even more remarkable is the selfless, unquestioning support he gave to his wife, Glenda Gilbert Hickman, M.D. when she, too, was facing end-of-life challenges, but knew that she still had more work left to do for her patients, and for the betterment of palliative care as a whole.  This is a love story on many levels — and one that needs to be told.

It only seems appropriate that Kelvin Hickman and Glenda Gilbert, both highly skilled computer science professionals, first met while working together on a defense project for which Kelvin was hired to develop the hardware — and Glenda was hired to develop the software; a perfect complementary relationship from the start. While the work project stalled, their relationship grew — and Glenda, who had experienced a difficult relationship in the past, appreciated the kind, soft-spoken, supportive and loving Kelvin. 

Though Computer Science was her first career, she always had other plans.  Her decision to become an EMT, which was initially supposed to quench her desire to help others, only fueled on her desire to become a doctor that much more.  With her Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science from Baylor University, her Master's Degree from UT-Dallas, she decided to take classes at Collin County Community College in Organic Chemistry and pre-med requirements to advance her interests. 

Glenda ultimately began to interview at a variety of medical schools, but UTMB was the place that really excited her.  This, of course, meant that Kelvin would have to become a "trailing spouse" as they moved to Galveston Island from the Dallas area — but he willingly accepted the role to allow her the opportunity to pursue her dreams. According to Kelvin, Glenda almost had a Ph.D. (ABD) in Computer Science, but it was a profession that still felt like a "boys' club" with very few women in the industry.  He goes on to share that "at least at UTMB, medicine had turned the corner" — and Kelvin remembers that her class was more than 50% women.  "That was an environment that she fell in love with down there [at UTMB] — she just loved the vibe." 

Although clearly an engineer and scientist, Glenda had an artistic side, as well — and while gifted in music, she gravitated towards the written word. She wrote poetry, and much of it was inspired by the emotions she faced while training to become a doctor and her challenges while treating patients. Poetry became a form of therapy for her to express herself and work through difficult emotions — and this gift of words would one day become a part of her mission as a healer. Kelvin said, "I would certainly listen to her at the end of the day, and she could talk to me and I could nod my head, but since I wasn't a part of the ‘club', I couldn't always understand."  He went on to suggest, "It is a daunting task for anyone to become a doctor or a nurse, and anyone in that stressful position — it is really tempting to build a wall and start to compartmentalize those feelings, but just because you don't hurt doesn't mean you aren't damaged by experiences."  

Glenda was often taught to become "close to patients, but not too close" to protect herself.  On one level she understood, but she didn't always feel that it was the way to handle things.  She was drawn to hospice and palliative care — and on occasion, found herself at odds with other doctors in how she would treat a patient because of her selfless approach.  According to Kelvin, she would say to patients' family members, "This is your loved one — and this is something you need to talk about regarding end-of-life.  Nobody gets out of this alive." 

Kelvin went on to suggest that other specialties didn't necessarily address the emotions that patients face at end-of-life, which is why the physician's healer track established at UTMB in Glenda Hickman's name, makes all the more sense.  Kelvin shared that Glenda would often say, "you can't really distance yourself from a patient." This was inspired by events in her own life.  Glenda once benefited from the care of a compassionate therapist, who went above and beyond to help her through a crisis — and it was because of that experience, that she went on to help others in that same manner.  Because of his life-changing impact, this uniquely important "influencer" even served as the officiant at Glenda and Kelvin's wedding. 

Glenda's work as a physician healer tapped into her deepest passions — and she wanted to make the end-of-life as positive and as comforting an experience, as possible. Glenda went on to make Grand Rounds presentations on how to respond to patients and how to talk to family members about what to expect at the end of life.  Kelvin shared, "If you know what is going to happen, it won't make it any easier, but it might make it less frightening.  She felt that this would help all doctors and nurses, who weren't necessarily in the hospice field, since all will ultimately treat patients in end-of-life scenarios."  

Dr. Hickman would ultimately help doctors and nurses cope with questions from patients like "Doctor, will you pray with me?" — even if a doctor was not personally religious. Rather than respond with "I'll get the chaplain," Dr. Hickman would encourage doctors to take the time to treat patients as a whole person.  Kelvin said, "[Patients] are not just a number, or a set of results coming back from a lab" — and when he speaks these words, one knows that he was equally a part of his wife's mission to offer compassion to all — and to treat everyone with dignity when facing an end-of-life situation, be it a patient or their loved ones. 

One cannot share a story about Dr. Hickman without referencing the important work she accomplished with stones. To bring comfort to her patients, as they faced the anxiety that accompanied their end-of-life journeys, Glenda would express her support by giving them words of scripture, poetry and inspiration that she painted on stones.  She and Kelvin would work on the stones together, with Kelvin developing the right technique to put lacquer on the stones to seal the painted words that were lovingly "inscribed" by Dr. Hickman — and understanding the diversity of the Houston/Galveston area, Dr. Hickman would paint phrases in multiple languages, including Spanish, English and even Sanskrit.  She always gave her patients two stones — one to keep and one to give away — to share the inspiration with others and "pay it forward".  With over 2500 stones out in the universe that were hand-crafted by Dr. Glenda Gilbert Hickman, it is moving to consider how many lives have continued to be touched by her compassionate work since her passing.

With that said, she didn't want to take any chances — and she wanted to ensure that she would continue to help other young doctors long after her time on this earth.  When Glenda was given the news that her own illness had progressed to a point where she would be facing her own mortality — in yet another act of complete selflessness,, Glenda asked her parents to create a scholarship at UTMB to provide financial support for future generations of medical students.  According to Kelvin, she said, "I would at least like to see this [scholarship] get started.  There will be no inheritance.  Please put that towards a scholarship fund."

She was then involved in developing the criteria for student selection, and thankfully, saw the scholarship awards come to fruition. On multiple levels she served as an "architect of change" for future generations of physicians — and her legacy continues to this day through the Glenda Gilbert Hickman, MD, FAAP, CHCP, DAHPM Presidential Scholarship at UTMB.

According to Kelvin, " She basically said, ‘I'm not going to outlive you and I would like to at least see it started.'  She had to be honest with herself.  Not from a point of giving up, however.  Even though she didn't know how much time she had left, she knew she was not going to outlive her parents.  I said to her, `I couldn't see why you wouldn't want to do this'.  That kind of honesty in dealing with her own mortality was a hallmark of how she dealt with her patients and her patients' families — that in order to be of service to your family and your loved ones now, you have to face this now. If you wait until it happens to face it, then there is nothing you can do.  It is difficult for people to face this." 

Kelvin recalls, "Glenda would come home heartbroken some nights after trying to contact family members of patients.  She would say to an adult child of the patient, `You need to come to see your parent now.'  They would say `this week is not good' —and she would then say,  `you are not hearing me, it is not about whether it is a good time for you, but rather, if you want to see them again.' They would then ask `how many days do we have left?' She would then respond, `If you want to have a meaningful conversation with your parent one last time, you must come now.'  If they delayed and showed up to just stand around a bed with an unresponsive parent, they would then say `well, I didn't know they were THAT sick.'  Glenda would remind them,` We used those words, your parent is THAT sick.'".

Thankfully, Glenda was a wake-up call for many people, allowing them a last memory of a loved one. Kelvin passionately asserts, "The one thing I would like for people to take away from her life is that `too late' is not a phrase that should exist in anyone's vocabulary.  Nothing is etched in stone. Your decisions and your fate — you may not be able to change your fate, but you can certainly make decisions that can change how you experience that fate."

Glenda never took the easiest path, but instead she always chose the path that she felt was "right" and "just" to carry out her mission of educating others about patient-centered, compassionate end-of-life care. Kelvin explains, "She chose to do things that were difficult.  She still had the courage to make decisions and not simply accept that `this is my fate'.  It was never `too late' in her mind."

Already Board certified in pediatrics and internal medicine, Glenda still chose to go into hospice and palliative care — and she sat for her Boards just four months after she had fallen into a coma, and had spent three-and-a-half months recovering in ICU.  Nothing could hold her back from achieving her goal of becoming certified in hospice and palliative care — and so, in an act of bravery and courage, she was brought in to take her exams by her loving husband, Kelvin, where she completed the exams while sitting in a wheelchair with an oxygen supply by her side.

Glenda's parents, Harold D. Gilbert, PhD, PE and Linda Gilbert, RN also wanted to make sure that people would remember Glenda as a compassionate and courageous healer, and they went on to establish a second fund in Glenda's name, the  Glenda Gilbert Hickman, MD, FAAP, CHCP, DAHPM Legacy Fund for the Physician Healer Track. This program has served to formalize her inspired medical care techniques, so that other physicians can learn from her years of wisdom, dedication and training in the field of healing – and through the generosity of Glenda's parents, it will ensure that the next generation of compassionate healers will now follow in Glenda's footsteps.

A soft-spoken, likeable man, who references Sisyphus, David Niven and Cary Grant in "The Bishop's Wife", and the pebble-effect on the world, one quickly understands why the passionate and soulful doctor, Glenda Gilbert Hickman was drawn to Kelvin Hickman, the kind-hearted.  He recalls her saying to her closest confidante, "I've met this guy at work — but he doesn't seem to be very ambitious."  To which her confidante replied, "He sounds perfect.  You don't need two Type A personalities.  He sounds like the ballast in your life."  Kelvin jokingly says, "I was the person in the marriage without ambition". Those who know Kelvin, describe that he had a "willingness to walk alongside her." Glenda's parents suggested that "This man gave his life to my daughter at the end" — and even though she passed away in 2012, he is still giving his life to her cause today.  He is carrying on their work and their shared vision to this day.

"I never felt that she was sacrificing me or our marriage for anything.  Her heart was always in it."  He truly believes in the concept that "many pebbles together can create an avalanche" — and he continues to find ways to give back to the world. In addition to his volunteer work with Harris and Galveston Counties with emergency radio broadcasting — and fulfilling the dreams that he and Glenda once shared of traveling around the United States in an RV, he continues to share Glenda's vision of making the world a better place by educating doctors to treat patients with kindness in their darkest hours.        

In a powerful act of selflessness, Kelvin has committed his entire estate to the Presidential Scholarship Fund at UTMB that bears his wife's name, so his legacy, too, shall live on — as the ballast that allowed Glenda to live out her mission of serving others. By generously putting others before himself, he is filled with joy because he is carrying out their shared vision. Kelvin comments, "I'm pleased that others will continue to benefit from the scholarships. Going to med school is a big financial burden and anybody who works, can't work their way through med school. — it just doesn't work that way.  Glenda was just constantly studying — so, anything that can make people better prepared, either financially, spiritually, intellectually, or personality-wise, so that they can add to their emotional toolbox — that is one less burden they have to carry with them.  I am so glad for those people."

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