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A COMMUNITY STANDS UP FOR AN EMBATTLED DOCTOR

Dr. Margaret A. Libby has been practicing medicine here for 13 years, and she's not going anywhere.

She also believes in sticking up for a friend. The evidence is on her ring finger, where she wears a sapphire-and-diamond ring.

It was given to her by an elderly woman who had worked at Newfane Inter-Community Memorial Hospital for 45 years but was to be laid off in a cost-cutting move in 1999.

"I literally wrapped her in my arms and marched her into (chief executive officer) Clare Haar's office and said, 'Look this woman in the eye and tell her you don't want her anymore.' She just looked out the window."

But the next day, according to Libby, the woman was rehired in a different hospital job. In gratitude, she gave Libby the ring she had received from previous hospital management for 30 years of service.

"It's the only piece of jewelry I wear," said Libby, a never-married 47-year-old who lives in Wilson, works in Barker, doesn't duck controversy and is considered a paragon of family medical practice by her supporters.

That's why her patients and friends successfully asked the Village Board to declare today "Dr. Margaret Libby Appreciation Day."

A party will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. today in the Barker Fire Company hall to honor the Boston, Mass.-born doctor, whose plain talk and resistance to some of the business aspects of modern medicine have won her applause from friends and ostracism from some of her medical colleagues.

Libby was the only local physician to publicly back the striking nurses of Lockport Memorial Hospital, who walked off the job for five weeks in July and August.

She also backed the non-nursing employees of Newfane Inter-Community Memorial Hospital last year when they came close to striking.

In both cases, she walked the picket lines and attended union rallies, while other doctors remained silent or actively supported management.

This has placed Libby at public odds with Haar, the chief executive officer of both hospitals.

Haar, through Inter-Community spokeswoman Carolyn Moore, declined requests for an interview about Libby.

She issued a written statement that said, "All of the hospital's physicians are very dedicated and work hard to serve this rural community. Dr. Libby tries very hard to serve her patients, and that is reflected by the party that is being held in her honor."

Libby said she was also frozen out by the other doctors in her calling group, who used to cover for each other on weekends and vacations.

"She's on 24-7 (24 hours a day, seven days a week)," said Libby's office manager, Mary Lou Fischer. "She carries her own phone and does her own answering service."

"I'm very worried that she won't be able to keep going," said Christine O'Grady, a patient of Libby's and a prime mover behind today's celebration.

But Libby laughed and said, "I still love it. I haven't died, I'm not retiring, I'm not moving, and they're still holding a celebration. I think it's wonderful."

"We're doing this to send a statement to Clare Haar and the doctors in her service," said Julie Obermiller, another organizer. "We support people who have the courage of their convictions."

"I feel free," Libby said. "I knew I was going to anger and alienate the physician community. . . . I feel like during the strike, people's true colors came out."

"She was our true advocate," said Edwin J. Robisch, staff and program director for the United Professional Nurses Association. "She contributed money, she contributed time, she contributed words, she contributed to the rallies. She was certainly an angel for all the nurses at all the facilities, and she's become my personal physician."

In fact, when Robisch became ill at a July 17 union rally in Lockport at which Libby spoke, Libby took him to Medina Memorial Hospital for emergency treatment, refusing to cross the picket line at Lockport Memorial even though the emergency room there was open.

"She walked the picket line," Robisch said. "Her participation was noted by the union movement in Western New York." Several union leaders are expected to speak at Libby's party today.

Libby said her union involvement began when she worked as an occupational therapist in New York City from 1978 to 1981, after earning a bachelor's degree at Mount Holyoke College and a master's degree at Columbia University.

She was a member of the Service Employees International Union, the same union that last fall threatened a walkout at Newfane Inter-Community.

"I walked the picket line with my cocker spaniel," said Libby, laughing loudly.

After earning a medical degree at the University at Buffalo in 1985, Libby served a three-year residency in family medicine at Buffalo General Hospital. In 1986, when there was a nurses' strike there, she walked the picket line.

"I identify myself as a worker," Libby said.

"She's just a fun-loving doctor. She loves to laugh," Fischer said. "People will sit and wait for hours just so they can see her."

Libby, who is aided by a full-time nurse practitioner, Wen Can Lu, is the only doctor in the northeastern corner of Niagara County, east of Newfane and north of Middleport. The towns of Hartland and Somerset have a combined population of 7,000, and Libby says she has 5,000 patient files.

But a few patients left after her remarks at a Lockport union rally in July were, according to her, misinterpreted.

Libby was warning about Haar's decision to shift all patient admissions to the much smaller Inter-Community during the Lockport strike.

"What I basically said was, I was anti-Clare Haar, that I perceived her as exploiting workers," Libby recalled.

She said that she feared the Newfane hospital's "resources would be overtaxed and there would be a disaster. If we made a mistake, a death could result." She thought Medina Memorial should be utilized as well.

Libby said Newfane nurses interpreted that as an attack on their competence, and several who were her patients went to other doctors. Libby wrote a letter of clarification to a local newspaper, but the damage was done.

"It injured me deeply," said Libby. Inter-Community is the only hospital at which she has admitting privileges, although she had temporary privileges at Medina during the Lockport strike.

Meanwhile, four other solo practitioners who had been covering for each other and Libby in a calling group for several years gave her the boot.

"When I came out in support of the nurses at Lockport, Dr. (Ashraf) Sahaf, as spokesman for the group, fired me," Libby said.

Sahaf did not return calls for a response. The only member who could be reached, Dr. Frederick J. Piwko, said the reason for dropping Libby was her perceived attack on the Newfane hospital.

"Anything that's negative toward the hospital is not taken lightly," said Piwko, whose practice is in Wrights Corners. "It's such a large part of the community. That's where we earn our livelihood."

Asked if Libby would be allowed back into the group, Piwko said, "Perhaps. It's less and less likely as editorials with personal slander come out."

"I consider (supporting the nurses' strike) a mark of moral courage," said O'Grady, a disabled woman who has just started a law practice in Lockport. "For them to dump her under pressure from that woman (Haar) shows they have no backbone. She's more of a man than they are."

Libby said only medical malpractice is usually grounds for removing a doctor's admitting rights at a hospital, but she said, "I'm sure Clare is watching. She'd be very creative."

"Dr. Libby is a member in good standing of the (Inter-Community) medical staff," said Moore, the hospital spokeswoman.

Libby said she was recruited by one of Moore's predecessors, Mary Ann Kendron, to come to Inter-Community in 1988 to replace a doctor on sabbatical. She had gone to medical school on a state public health scholarship "in return for me working in a physician shortage area."

She worked in outpatient clinics and shared a practice with another doctor in Barker for six months in 1989. He moved out, eventually leaving the area, and Libby was on her own.

"I was told innumerable times by faculty at medical school that a woman should not have a solo practice," Libby said.

But she's stubborn. Libby's father was descended from a passenger on the Mayflower, and her mother, a teacher, was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. "I'm about as Yankee as you can be," she chortled.

"She is very much part of the community," Obermiller said. "We don't want things to get to the point where we would lose her."

"She never charged me for two years until I became eligible for Medicare," said O'Grady, who spends most of her time in a wheelchair.

Village Mayor John Hayden said, "I suffered heart problems and had to go in for a quadruple bypass. She basically saved my life. . . . I've never had a doctor before of her stature."

"She makes house calls to the seniors at Barker Commons," Obermiller said. "She genuinely, absolutely cares."

Libby said: "In my opinion, I'm practicing the kind of medicine the patients want, but it's not the kind of medicine HMOs reimburse. . . . Mine's not a money-making practice. You'd think the HMOs would get smart and realize this is the kind of care that's marketable."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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