A doctor remembers two women who lit the torch for their careers in psychiatry.
WOMEN WHO INSPIRATE
(In honor of Women’s History Month, we invited our contributors to write about the women who inspire them. – Ed.)
Many people in my life have inspired me – teachers, parents, friends and their parents and bosses. I like to think that I’ve had a “mentor mosaic” with different women (and men) cultivating different aspects of my career and existence in our limited time on this earth. And I hope that what they gave me will be passed on to future generations of young women.
Two women in my career have very different and effective mentoring styles. During my psychiatric clerkship, Gloria Green, MD, mentored me and other trainees in the VA Hospital’s inpatient psychiatric unit in the 1980’s. This little black psychiatrist commanded the respect of medical professionals and a variety of patients, some of whom were burly, sometimes demanding, and often wracked by their traumatic combat experiences. According to legend, she stood up to a veterinarian who demanded medication despite the threat of a powerful blow. She gave us an unforgettable understanding of the different dynamics underlying the new DSM diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Green laid the foundation for my career choice in psychiatry. Fortunately, she later switched to the university outpatient clinic, where she looked after me in the third year of my specialist training. Kind and respectful, she was honest enough to suggest that a difficult borderline patient “punished me” as she had been punished by parent figures. On the other hand, I’ll always remember her giggling as I ran up the stairs to the clinic and noticed I had a bottle of pink liquid antibiotic for my toddler that I forgot to leave at daycare. That empathic connection let me know that she, too, struggled with caring for a family during her own career. Green is long since retired, and although I recently learned that she passed away in 2018, her memory remains indelibly engraved on my soul.
Betty Pfefferbaum, MD, shaped my scientific career for many years as head of the institute and continues to do so in her retirement. An unexpected event changed our paths and many lives when a terrorist bomb destroyed the nearby Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. Under Pfefferbaum’s leadership, our faculty cared for directly exposed survivors, many injured and bereaved. She set a wonderful example by working with her team in schools to assess the needs of children, some of whom had lost their parents. She furthered research related to this traumatic event on many fronts.
Since I was conducting biological studies of anxiety disorders and PTSD at the time, she supported my physiological and biological assessments of direct bombing survivors through a generous collaboration with Carol North, MD. We were able to find that direct survivors still showed physiological reactivity to memories of their ordeal and differences in cortisol compared to community controls 7 years after the disaster. This was unrelated to the PTSD diagnosis and symptoms, suggesting a lasting biological footprint of the trauma.
Later, nearly 19 years after the event, Pfefferbaum advised and directed my investigations into the long-term emotional and physical health, psychosocial functioning, and lasting memories of direct bombing survivors. She encouraged more biological research for displaced survivors of Hurricane Katrina and other studies. Funding this research revived my academic career. Later, when I returned to the faculty after serving as a dean, she welcomed me and once again supported my research, teaching, and clinical responsibilities. She understood the importance of guiding her faculty in discovering and developing their passions into academic careers. We all need a purpose, and Pfefferbaum understood that—and still does!
I sincerely hope in some way to light the torch in the careers and lives of others as these two extraordinary women have done for me.
Dr Tucker is Associate Chair in Education in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, holds the Professor and Arnold and Bess Ungerman Endowed Chair in Psychiatry and the Robert Glenn Rapp Foundation Presidential Professorship in Medicine, and serves in the Adult Psychiatric Services at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, Oklahoma City.
Is there a woman who inspires you? Write to us at PTeditor@mmhgroup.com for an opportunity to contribute to ours women who inspire Series.