This summer, James R. Higgins (MD ’77) will cross off the 2,152nd item on what is undoubtedly the world’s most ambitious bucket list. And you can watch him do it.
Higgins played President of the United States in the political thriller Persecuted, which is due to open at theatres nationwide in July. The Tulsa cardiologist delivered 38 lines alongside numerous well-known actors such as James Remar, whose lengthy list of credits includes Django Unchained, X-Men, and Dexter. Higgins says it was a lot of fun, but he won’t continue seeking Hollywood fame and fortune. He’s got too many other things left to do before he dies.
“I wanted to be in a movie, but there are still 1,259 items on my list,” says Higgins, who admits it’s a bottomless bucket. “I keep adding to it.”
He started the list while he was a student in Rochester, and now rattles off a dizzying inventory of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. He recalls dining at Windsor Castle with Princes Charles, Edward, and Philip, climbing Mt. McKinley, parachuting with Navy SEALS, catching catfish with his bare hands (a pastime known as “noodling” down South), hunting rattlesnakes, becoming certified to fly his own Westwind jet, piloting an acrobatic airplane, posing for pictures with every president since John F. Kennedy, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and visiting every Central and South American country. He is preparing to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro this fall, and hoping to find his way aboard Air Force One. And he would really like to be inside a fighter jet as it’s catapulted off an aircraft carrier.
Growing up in rural Wessington Springs, South Dakota, with a 2010 population of 956, Higgins didn’t expect his life to become one big adventure. The South Dakota State undergrad was the first in his family to go to college. An electrical engineering major and star athlete, he decided to attend medical school after playing cards with team doctors on the way home from a championship basketball game. He says he hitchhiked to all of his admission interviews, surprising the bowtie-clad professors at numerous Ivy League schools.
“They would ask how my flight had been, and when I told them I hitchhiked, they just about fell off their chairs,” he laughs. “I got into every medical school I applied to because I fit the criteria for being different.”
Higgins arrived in Rochester on a Friday night, finding a spot to sleep in Helen Wood Hall before his morning appointments.
“They didn’t ask about my grades or MCAT scores, which were very good. They said they wanted to know if I was the kind of person who should be a doctor,” remembers Higgins. “That’s why I went to Rochester.”
A third-year rotation with Arthur J. Moss, M.D. convinced him to become a cardiologist.
“We would go over to Dr. Moss’ house for dinner every Wednesday, and he would quiz us on a CPC from the New England Journal of Medicine. He changed my life.”
Somehow, Higgins found time to marry Julie, his high school sweetheart, and raise three sons. The oldest, Christopher J. Higgins, M.D., recently joined his father’s practice, taking over most of the invasive procedures. Higgins says this gives him more time to whittle away at the bucket list.