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News | Jan. 31, 2023

National Women Physicians Day: In the footsteps of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

By Bernard Little, WRNMMC Command Communications

“I was called to medicine very much like ministers are called to the pulpit,” said Navy Capt. (Dr.) Kelly Elmore, chief of staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC). An obstetrician/gynecologist, Elmore added, “I knew since I was 6, I wanted to be a doctor, and since 8, I wanted to be an OB/GYN.”

A passion for medicine and science, as well as the desire to help people, are shared reasons Elmore and a number of her colleagues at WRNMMC became physicians. Some of those physicians are women, who in 2022, made up approximately 37 percent of U.S. physicians, according to Becker's ASC Review, a publication of news and information concerning ambulatory surgery centers nationwide.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported in 2020, “One of the steadiest movements has been the rise in women as a percentage of the physician workforce: It rose from 28.3 percent in 2007 to 36.3 percent [in 2019].”

February 3 annually marks National Women Physicians Day, which honors women doctors across the country and their contributions to health care. Less than a decade old, National Women Physicians Day is celebrated on the birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. She graduated from New York's Geneva Medical College in 1849.

Originally a schoolteacher, Blackwell’s interest in medicine was reportedly sparked after a friend of hers fell ill and remarked that, had a female doctor cared for her, she might not have suffered so much.

Elmore shared similar sentiments as to what motivated her to pursue a career in medicine.

“I observed women needed someone who specifically cared about their spiritual, physical, financial, mental and emotional health, and I wanted to be a part of the solution to accessing safe, inclusive, equitable and evidence-based care and resources,” Elmore stated.

Army Maj. (Dr.) Tiffany Pike-Lee, a neurologist and neuromuscular specialist at WRNMMC, expressed feelings.

“My mother grew up in Appalachia. Her father was a coal miner who passed away from black lung and her mother passed away from breast cancer at a young age. I recall growing up hearing her discuss the difficulties she had obtaining health care in rural America,” said Pike-Lee, who also serves as an assistant professor of neurology at the Uniformed Services University (USU).

“My father, who immigrated to the United States at 18 pursued his dream and became a physician,” Pike-Lee continued. “He practiced in North Carolina. Growing up, I had the opportunity to shadow him as he volunteered at a local free health clinic in rural North Carolina. This was inspiring to see how a small group of volunteers could make such a difference in the community. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine in which I could make an impact and find personal fulfillment.”

Pike-Lee explained she volunteered at a local nursing facility while she was in high school and seeing residents who had neurologic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and strokes, led her to decide to specialize in neurology, neuromuscular and electrodiagnostic medicine.

“Joining the military was one of the best career evolutions for me,” Pike-Lee added. “As a neuromuscular specialist, I have been able to diagnose and treat service members and dependents with complex neuromuscular conditions at WRNMMC. It’s rewarding to be able to work with so many dedicated service members from across branches to provide exceptional care to those who served and are serving.”

Dr. Tawnee Sparling also said it’s rewarding treating veterans and their family members. “Seeing my patients walk again for the first time after their amputations, or watching my patients far exceed expectations and achieve new goals, such as medaling in adaptive sports competitions, [is rewarding].”

Sparling, a board-certified physiatrist, completed her fellowship in August 2022. She was the inaugural Stepping Strong Amputee Rehabilitation Fellow for a new program at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital (through Harvard Medical School) where she collaborated with multidisciplinary teams at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital and WRNMMC.

“In college, I volunteered at the local hospital. I was inspired by seeing the progression, both physically and mentally, of the patients over the course of their admission. I knew I wanted to be part of the team that helped them get home,” Sparling explained.

“Physiatry is all about multidisciplinary care and coordination of team efforts to help patients achieve both functional and quality of life goals. It’s a field of medicine where I can advocate for my patients and work with and learn from providers that other physicians may not get to interact with,” Sparling added.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Amy Hildreth, an emergency medicine physician assigned to WRNMMC but currently deployed in the Middle East, also said the most rewarding part of her job is taking care of people, despite the fact her military commitment means being away from her son.

“While there are a lot of challenging things about being a physician, this unique challenge of being a military physician is the hardest for me,” Hildreth said. “I love taking care of people, but I also love teaching. Whether corpsmen, medical students, residents, nurses, patients…you name it, there’s a light in someone’s eye when they understand something new. I like helping people find that light.”

On her deployment, Hildreth is serving as the assistant officer-in-charge of the Expeditionary Resuscitative Surgical System with the Naval Amphibious Force, Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade in support of Operation Spartan Shield. In 2018, she deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan as part of the NATO Role III Multinational Medical Unit. There, she was the Command Simulation Center director, the Continuing Medical Education coordinator, and the director of the "Tango Training Course," a basic medical skills course for providers at the Role Ill.

Hildreth explained she was motivated to pursue medicine by her uncle, Dr. Jim Scott. “[He] is an incredible doctor. He’s very intelligent, a great listener and a wonderful teacher. He inspired me to become a physician,” she explained.

Hildreth added her interest in emergency medicine was ignited in college when she worked in the emergency department at George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C.

“It was there that I grew to love emergency medicine,” Hildreth said. “I love that every day is different, and you never know what is going to happened. Every patient gives you a new opportunity to learn and grow,” she added.

The four physicians stressed the importance of hard work, dedication and seeking mentors to be successful.

“You can be whatever you put your mind to,” Elmore said. “If it’s in your heart, you stay focused and dedicated, you can not only be a physician, but you can have a wonderful fulfilling career and make a positive impact in many lives,” she said.

“Seek out mentors early on,” Pike-Lee added. “Seek many mentors with different areas of expertise and backgrounds. Remember, your mentors’ career paths don’t necessarily have to be yours. Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges and to forge your own unique career path.”

“Pace yourself,” Pike-Lee furthered. “It’s a long journey, but well worth it.”

“I would steal the words of Glennon Doyle, ‘We can do hard things,’” Hildreth added.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to strong female colleagues for support and mentorship throughout the process. You can’t do this alone,” Sparling said.
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