Making history: Retiring staff member reflects on her family’s 130+ years at Michigan Medicine

December 15, 2021  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,
Heather Lewis next to the photo of her grandfather, David Bernard Foster, M.D.

While awaiting chemotherapy at Michigan Medicine, Heather Lewis became anxious. Seeking reassurance, she knew what she needed to do: take a walk to level 2 of the Rogel Cancer Center. It was there she found comfort looking at the pictures of her grandparents and great grandfather. 

All three are graduates of the U-M Medical School.

“Those photos have always made me smile,” said Lewis, who in addition to being a patient at Michigan Medicine is an architect with the organization’s facilities planning and development team. “Even though they are long gone, I feel their love and support no matter what I’m going through.”

A crazy coincidence

Believe it or not, Lewis’ connection to Michigan Medicine began as a complete coincidence. 

“My parents met out in California when they were in the Navy,” Lewis said.  Not only did her grandfathers both attend med school here, but despite a large age difference, they knew each other from their time on campus.

L-R: Frederick Graham, Barney Graham and Barney Foster

Barney Graham, M.D., had followed in his father’s footsteps by attending the U-M Medical School and graduated with the Class of 1931. (His father, Frederick Graham, M.D., was a member of the Class of 1891.) 

Meanwhile, David Bernard Foster, M.D., was part of the Class of 1938. But Barney Graham had returned to Ann Arbor for extra training in surgery and ended up among a group with Foster who ate lunch together frequently. 

After school, they both went their separate ways, with Graham practicing in Alma, Michigan and then helping start Gratiot Community Hospital (now MidMichigan Medical Center-Gratiot), while Foster moved to Topeka, Kansas, applying his neurology expertise at the Menninger Foundation.

Their paths would cross again in Topeka at their children’s wedding. 

Little did they know that years later, granddaughter Heather would also make an impact at Michigan Medicine.

Choosing a different path

From an early age, Lewis knew she wasn’t interested in practicing medicine. Instead, she was fascinated by designing buildings — with blocks, Legos and on graph paper.  

“I was amazed to find out I could make a living doing what I loved!” Lewis said.

That led her to attend the U-M School of Architecture, where she received a Master’s degree in 1988.

“One of my first mentors was designing health care facilities, which was much more exciting than the warehouses that I was working on at the time,” Lewis recalled with a laugh.  “Designing health care environments directly impacts patient care, as well as the morale of patients and staff.”

She eventually joined a firm in Ann Arbor whose main client was Michigan Medicine. In 2006, she joined the organization full-time and has spent the ensuing years consulting with psychiatric services, the operating rooms and more. 

On the other side

Lewis has also been on the “other side” at Michigan Medicine, as she’s twice received care for breast cancer at the Rogel Cancer Center.

“The care I have received here has been great,” Lewis said. “It really made me understand the meaning of the term ‘comprehensive cancer care’ — all the specialists involved in my treatment coordinated with each other and guided my care from one step to the next.”

And her experience has made her commitment to her job that much stronger.

“The most successful projects bring together representatives of everyone who uses the space: physicians, nurses, medical assistants, patients and support staff. I love the challenge of finding creative ways to address sometimes competing needs and wants.”

Leaving a legacy

That mindset has spurred Lewis in her work.

“We work with infection prevention, environmental services and maintenance to standardize and ensure the materials selected are easy to clean and repair,” Lewis said. “On top of that, any renovation or construction project needs to work with the rest of the building, and in the end, the design needs to meet the life safety code.”

While the work is challenging enough, Lewis is making sure the next generation of colleagues keep up such high standards.

“I’ve made it a goal to mentor our new team members as much as I can,” Lewis said.  “I know they will do amazing things.”

For Lewis, some of the “amazing things” she has created can be seen today at University Hospital, as well as years into the future at the new Pavilion at U-M Health, as she has helped plan some of the details for that facility.

That will be part of a legacy she will leave on campus — even as she prepares to retire from Michigan Medicine at the end of the month. 

“It’s bizarre to think that my family ‘legacy’ here began more than 130 years ago with my great grandfather,” Lewis said. “But it’s such a unique story and something I’m extremely proud of.” 

Heather Lewis shared even more about her family’s history, and reflected on her career at Michigan Medicine, on the latest episode of The Wrap employee podcast. Check it out via the YouTube video below or find an audio-only version here.