A Conversation With Dr. Matthew Heckman, MD, PhD
When correspondent Sara Vogt interviewed Dr. Matthew Heckman, she found the Elkland Laurel Health Center physician to be a man of great heart, warmth, knowledge and humor. Self-described as a “local and organic product,” Dr. Heckman was raised on a multigenerational family farm between Woodhull and Jasper, New York, and attended the Jasper-Troupsburg Junior-Senior High School. From the University of Rochester, where he received a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, Dr. Heckman went on to attend medical school at the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine with the goal of returning “home” to practice family medicine. He has been working at the Elkland Laurel Health Center since September of 2016. Dr. Heckman and his wife, Bethany (his high school sweetheart), now live in the area with their four children.
When asked why he decided to become a family practitioner, Dr. Heckman points to his own experience: “I had a family. My wife and I started taking our kids to the doctor, and being an engineer, I thought, ‘Hey, this is a system that I could make better’. . . I wanted to make medicine better for young families.”
He goes on to describe his transition from engineering to medical practice as a shift in how he viewed the kind of contribution he would be able to make to other people.
“As I was going through, I realized how much relationship was important to me. I loved what I was doing in the lab; I loved the fact that I might be able to contribute something to humanity in 30 years, but it became really clear in that process that I had more to give—that I had more that I wanted to do in a shorter period of time . . . And so I drifted into a different way of thinking about how I was going to spend the next 30 – 40 years, and medicine just seemed like it was going to be a big part of that—and not just medicine anywhere, but medicine taking care of my home area . . . as a calling, or a mission.”
As a family practitioner, Dr. Heckman explains that family practice is an area of specialty within the medical field that focuses on taking care of communities, and individuals within those communities. “You can’t really take good care of individuals without considering what’s going on with the family, and what’s going on with the community.”
“Quite often you will hear me say in the exam room, ‘I take good care of babies. And do you know how do I do that? I take good care of their moms.’ He continues, “You can’t take good care of babies without taking good care of their families.”
Discussing children and pediatrics, in the midst of cold and flu season, Dr. Heckman is asked about guidelines for parents keeping a child home from school or sending a child back to school after an illness.
“What is really important is that a parent use good judgment; I always try to empower parents to use their intuition and good judgment . . . If your child looks ill, whether they have a fever or not; if they don’t seem like they are going to be able to go to school and learn and participate in the activities, then staying home may be a good idea.”
He continues, “I encourage parents to trust their instincts. Does the child look ready to go back to school? If the answer is yes, send them back to school; if the answer is no, please keep them home another day, please let them rest. There is no hurry to get them back when they are not ready. Relatedly: How is my child functioning? Are they able to do what they need to do for the entire school day?” Another item that he suggests be considered is the duration and progression of the illness.
When talking about children with a fever, and the concerns parents may have about an elevated temperature in a child he notes, “Fever is not necessarily something to run away from; we don’t have to treat just the fever number; we should be looking a bigger picture. We should be looking at how a child is feeling, how a child is acting when we are deciding about medication, when we are deciding about exclusion [from school].”
This leads Sara to ask Dr. Heckman about the term ’holistic.’ He explains that the term may mean different things to different people, but that essentially you are looking at the whole person and the whole picture. “Holistic medicine tends to empower the patient,” he continues. “For a long time [historically] the guy in the white coat told the patient what to do and they were supposed to do it, and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t.”
“My job, I tell my patients, is not to tell you what to do. My job is to take my education and come up with some good options for you, options that the science says work for groups of people, to offer them to you, and for us to talk about what might be the best way to proceed for you. But ultimately this is your body, this is your choice, I don’t get to tell you what to do, I get to offer you good options.”
Regarding the importance of the relationship between the physician and the patient, he says, “If you hang around here long enough, what you will hear me say is that in primary care, the relationship is a primary tool . . . through relationships we can avoid unnecessary treatment, we can avoid unnecessary hospitalization, we can help people find what they are looking for from the medical system, not necessarily with medications.” He further explains that when people go to the doctor, they want to talk and be heard and be understood and treated as a person.
“As a doctor, I want to know my patient first . . . I want to know who they are as a person, I want to know how they think, and how the treatment options I present to them may be perceived . . . I need to know the person, not just their bodies, not just the facts.”
When asked about guidelines for taking a child to the emergency room, Dr. Heckman explains that he views the emergency room as a place to take people when there is a life-threatening issue. “In our society, we have come to over-use the emergency department . . . The advice I give to parents is, ‘When you are scared, call me; call your doctor first.’” The guidance that an individual’s doctor can provide can help to determine if there might be other options, or if an ER visit is essential. He emphasizes that in certain situations such as airway issues, loss of consciousness, a life-threatening condition or illness, immediate medical attention is critical and do not hesitate to proceed to the emergency room.
As a parent, having a team supporting your child’s health is a gift. Dr. Heckman wants the parents to know that, “You are not alone in this. . . . I want you to take responsibility for your child, but I want to support you; I want you to have the best pit crew behind you to run this race as a parent.” He views his role as a physician as a way to encourage, empower and support parents and families.
Another topic that Sara and Dr. Heckman discuss is how to handle a cough. “Cough is one of the biggest things that parents deal with at home, that teachers deal with at school . . . It is really just an irritated airway. Most of the time it is from one of the nasty viruses that is going around, so anything that we can do to calm the irritation is going to help calm the cough. So, I talk about honey—honey is just as good or better than any of the cough suppressants that we can buy over the counter.” He also notes that dry air can worsen a cough and that a warm, steamy shower may help to alleviate symptoms and that in some cases an inhaler may be of use.
Finally, Sara asks Dr. Heckman to discuss ways of encouraging the immune system and again, Dr. Heckman points to common sense items including a good sleep patterns, a good healthy, well-balanced diet, play, happiness, exercise, de-stressing the life.
As a family practice physician, Dr. Heckman is trained to provide a holistic approach to medical care for patients of all ages. His practice emphasizes maternal-child health with expertise in community-based pediatrics and obstetrics and his interest in obstetrics has taken him to Zambia with the non-profit Tiny People Matter to equip and train midwives and traditional birth attendants in basic neonatal resuscitation, and to help develop a cellular/texting based system to track outcomes. In addition to serving the community through the Elkland Laurel Health Center, Dr. Heckman delivers and cares for newborns at Soldiers + Sailors Memorial Hospital in Wellsboro.
For more information on the Laurel Health Centers, please visit them on Facebook or contact one of their locations directly:
Blossburg Laurel Health Center (570) 638-2174
Elkland Laurel Health Center (814) 258-5117
Lawrenceville Laurel Health Center (570) 827-0125
Mansfield Laurel Health Center (570) 662-2002
Wellsboro Laurel Health Center (570) 724-1010
Westfield Laurel Health Center (814) 367-5911
The Laurel Health Centers offer a wide range of services for all age groups. From primary and acute care to long-term and preventive health services, we have continually expanded our capabilities to meet the changing needs of our patients. As we continue to change, one thing will remain constant—our dedication to the health and well-being of the communities we serve.
Healthcare for Life.
Come and meet Dr. Heckman at our public open house on April 7 from 3 to 6 pm at the Elkland Laurel Health Center. Bring your family health care related questions. Dr. Heckman is accepting new patients and families at the Elkland center. Call (814) 258-5117 for an appointment!
Staff as they appeared in the video feature.
Matthew Heckman Physician MD,PHD
Olufemi Awosik Physician MD
Sara Ritchey Physicians Assistant
Melissa Heck Nurse (RN)
Leah Bintliff Nurse (LPN)
Laura Beard Nurse (LPN)
Amanda Rowan Nurse (LPN)
Urse Barton Medical Office Clerk
Alexis Taft Medical Office Clerk
Videography: Andrew Moore
Video Editing: Andrew Moore
Writing: Heather Weiner
Anchor: Amiee Jones
Correspondent: Sara Vogt
Produced by Vogt Media
Funded by Laurel Health