She ruined her tennis shoes. That’s what I think every time I walk into my OB/GYN’s office for a routine check-up. This woman, a decade older and millennia wiser, ruined her tennis shoes for me. She also saved my life and my babies, all three of them.
So when I read in New York Magazine that we’re about to enter an OB/GYN drought, a shortage of epic proportions, I wish I could book my next 20 years of pap smears and mammograms in advance. I want to lock her in my Google calendar before she makes an exit. If the average age of any woman’s health doctor is 51, the average age of retirement is 59, and the pool of new cadets is dwindling, we’re all in trouble.
I get the early retirement. I get the burn-out rate, the second highest of any medical field. Those hours are brutal and so are the emotional and mental tolls these doctors pay every time they deliver a high-risk baby or walk a woman through postpartum depression. It’s a mucky road to walk down for them and us.
Which leads me back to my OB and her tennis shoes. I threw my back out with my first child at 30 weeks gestation. Or so I thought. Five days later, I was flipping chairs in triage, yelling for someone to give me a steroid shot. I truly believed this was just a pinched nerve. As it turns out, it was my son, pinching the last and most tender parts of me, like a stuck doorbell, telling me he was ready to come out. And he did. This pre-term child, who’d already been diagnosed with a syndrome in utero and would come to be diagnosed with a few more down the road, decided he was done baking. The little guy came into the world safely due to the steady hands of my stoic doctor, who all but back-handed the nurse-in-training when she tried to hand me the newborn cap and gown. Clearly, I would not be dressing and cuddling this baby any time soon. We were not ready to post this pic on Facebook just yet. I did not need the blue cap to remind me.
Then it got interesting, Willy-Wonka-in-the-psychedelic-tunnel interesting. I might have been tripping on my epidural, but as I strained to see his little body swarmed by doctors and residents like ants on honey, the ceiling started to close in and the floor rise up, like a giant set of hands. Then I heard it, a loud rushing noise, like my ear was up against the toilet bowl. I looked to my knees and caught sight of my OB in the mirror, the mirror that was pointed at my vagina. It was meant to encourage pushing, but in reality, it made my uterus freeze up like a wild animal in headlights.
“Why so serious?” I wanted to ask her as I looked from the wreckage that was me and back to her face, but I faded away. There was no time. There never is before the curtain closes.
Then I was back, pulled forcibly from the blanket of sleep I’d fallen under by her hands tugging at my insides, scraping with fingers and knuckles at the inner core of me, like she was carving a pumpkin. She was, as it turns out, saving me from the placenta rupture that had caused me to hemorrhage. That rushing noise had been a waterfall of blood – buckets and buckets of blood. With eyes closed and working only by feel, she gathered all the tiny bits of me that needed to be excised, placed them gently in a pan, and knit me back together. Then she patted my knee, told me to rest, and left, leaving bloody footprints down the hall.
Without her, I may not have made it to mother my son or the twins that came later. Without her, I would not be the woman I am today, still whole and safe. I don’t want to think about her retirement any time soon. I don’t want to let anyone else step up to that particular plate, but someone (a whole hoard in fact) is going to need to, because the U.S. is looking at a shortage of 22,000 OB/GYNs by 2050. The top three cities to see the heaviest losses are Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Orlando, with cities like Buffalo, New York, and Riverside, California, coming in a close second.
With populations soaring and medical professionals retiring without replacement, future healthcare for women is looking scarce. As NPR reports, women in the U.S. die of pregnancy complications more than in any other country, so we need to be prepared. We need more women and men to step into the arena. We need to raise up a generation of doctors willing to get their hands dirty and to fight the burn-out for the greater good of our well-being.
In the meantime, I’m going to buy my doctor a new set of tennis shoes for every year she promises not to retire.