Dr. James Fitzgibbon, adolescent medicine specialist, originally wanted to be a chemist like his father, but it was his conversations with and mutual respect for teens that led him into adolescent medicine. As the oldest of 13 children, including a set of triplets and twins, Dr. Fitz, as he’s known at Akron Children’s, related easily to his siblings. Later, it was his college job as a resident hall manager in a freshmen dorm that convinced him that helping adolescents was his true calling.
In many ways, it was as if Dr. Fitz found the fountain of youth by working with adolescents. The energy, challenges and unique needs of older kids, ages 11 to 21, kept him sharp and constantly learning. For more than a half century, Dr. Fitz has worked tirelessly to ensure teens receive the confidential, nonjudgmental care they need to develop into competent adults.
His work on behalf of adolescents has earned him numerous academic, community and professional honors, including the Distinguished Service Award. This award is the highest honor given annually to an Akron Children’s employee or volunteer to recognize their dedication to Children’s mission and passion for service above self.
Socially distant 2020 Distinguished Service Award presentation
Because of COVID-19, the usual award celebration was replaced by a surprise workplace visit from Grace Wakulchik, president and CEO, and Dr. Robert McGregor, chief medical officer, who brought balloons, special cookies and a congratulatory plaque. The videotaped event includes several colleagues who talked about Dr. Fitz’s legacy, mentorship and impact on teens’ lives.
“Dr. Fitz has taught and guided many providers at different levels within Children’s, some of whom are now at respected universities teaching others,” said Teresa Fletcher, lead advanced practice provider in adolescent medicine. “He’s a man with a lot of passion, knowledge and patience, who would do anything to help his patients or team. Even now, years into his practice, he’ll read hundreds of pages of research articles to learn the latest ideas and solutions to problems.”
For Dr. Fitz, who retires on February 26, the award is a capstone to his 40-year career at Children’s. During thank you remarks that turned emotional, Dr. Fitz credited his co-workers, who shared his view that adolescents should always have a safe place to go. With their help, adolescent medicine grew into a thriving subspecialty. Its services include a comprehensive eating disorders program, adolescent gynecology and coordination with providers at Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics locations in 25 counties.
“You can’t accomplish this without the help of many others who believe as I do, that adolescents should always have a place to go,” he said. “I want to thank the teens. When you get to see kids through their various stages of development and growth, that’s what makes pediatrics really fun. These kids have taught me more than anything I’ve given them. Children’s is going to be a hard place to leave.”
What brought you to Children’s?
I originally came here for my residency. Children’s had an inpatient adolescent unit, and when I asked to work with the teens, no one fought me on that! I also gained professional experience as a staff pediatrician working with teens at Scott Air Force Base Medical Center in Illinois. When I finished medical school and prepared to go into practice, Dr. John Kramer, retired pediatric cardiologist who chaired Children’s pediatric residency program, encouraged me to come here to start an adolescent program.
What have your biggest contributions been while here?
For 36 years, I worked as adolescent medicine director until Dr. Stephen Sondike replaced me in that role 4 years ago. When I started, we used the term “new morbidity” to describe risky teenager behaviors, which often thwarted teens. This fit into my angst and goals to develop health care practices that also addressed public health needs, such as teen pregnancy, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, etc., that could derail a teen.
We went out into the community, beginning with the Summit County Juvenile Detention Center when Dr. Bob Stone asked me to see an adolescent at the request of a judge. We’re still going there 3 days a week.
One of my fondest outreach memories is the PATHS (Promoting Adolescents Through Health Services) program that targeted at-risk adolescents. Kids learned life skills and how to make good choices. We celebrated their achievements often, with their grandmothers coming to the PATHS site to cook.
In addition to patient education, we’ve developed a pediatric residency rotation, which helps with physician recruitment. We also contribute to the Ohio Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics, including its annual adolescent medicine conference.
What do you look forward to the most in retirement?
I’m looking forward to unscheduled days and time spent with my wife, Nelda, and our family and grandchildren. I plan to fish, garden, read, cook and maybe, audit a class or two.