Leading from the heart: Mary Hawkins earns doctorate summa cum laude

By Sarah Pridgeon

Some say that following your heart is the best route through life; for Mary Hawkins of Devils Tower, leading from the heart was also her goal. Two years of intense study at Gonzaga University, Washington, and two further years of dissertation writing from home, have rewarded her with a doctorate of Philosophy in Leadership Studies, with highest honors.

Hawkins’ research focused on improving cardiac health with a truly holistic approach. “The wellness of the human heart is affected by many more factors than conventional medicine addresses,” she says. “My study combined mind, body and spirit to create a complete picture of heart wellness, integrating medical practices and techniques with emotional aspects.”

Using biofeedback, she helps her patients manage their heart rate variability, focusing on emotions related to the heart. By encouraging a healthy state of mind, this technique can improve blood pressure, the body’s immune response, blood sugar levels and even a person’s overall morale and work performance.

Leading from the heart, she says, has been a life-long motivation, and one that has come full circle since she was a teen on the verge of embarking on her college career, with scholarship. Hawkins delayed school to take care of her mother when she became ill and, as a result, became certified in respiratory and massage therapy, earned a Master’s degree in physical therapy and developed a passion for stress-related care.

With other family members currently suffering from heart-related conditions, and having lost her parents to cardiac disease and mother-in-law to cardiac arrest, Hawkins’ work will be of benefit to her family, as well as her patients. “I call the whole experience delayed gratification,” she says.

Hawkins is a trained practitioner for Heart Math, an institute whose work formed part of her study and is dedicated to helping people reduce stress, self-regulate their emotions and build energy and resilience for healthy, happy lives.

Washington may seem quite the commute for a student, but for Hawkins it was the natural choice. “Gonzaga University’s Doctoral Program in Leadership is unique; it attracts professionals from all fields, from medical, education and military to international business,” she explains. “It looks at leadership from many different angles, such as organizational theory, global policy and management skills – I focused on psychology and brought my experience of health care.”

To complete her doctorate, Hawkins followed an intensive program that allowed her to study for three months and then return home to her husband and work for one month – a routine she followed for two years. “It was my first time ever away from my husband of 25 years,” she smiles.

Hawkins now hopes to benefit both individuals and corporations, for whom the idea of caring for the heart by focusing on emotions may initially be a leap of faith. “It’s much less so when you see the results of experiments and how emotions such as gratitude improve heart health, and how that can help reduce stress and improve performance,” she explains.

“I’ve just submitted my doctoral work for publication and it will be available online. I’ve been strongly urged by my dissertation committee to transform it into popular texts that will help people improve their heart health and reduce stress. One version will also focus on how to do this from a leadership aspect,” she goes on.

Hawkins maintains a practice in integrative health care that includes physical therapy, biofeedback, massage and also draws on her training as a respiratory therapist to promote wellness and heart health in northeast Wyoming and Colorado. “This approach could be used in so many ways – the world is my oyster right now. I’m passionate about bringing this work to my patients,” she concludes.