Mentor Mosaic: 2 Women Who Inspired Me

One doctor reflects on 2 women who lit the torch for her career in psychiatry.

WOMEN WHO INSPIRE

(In honor of Women’s History Month, we invited our contributors to write about the women who inspire them.—Ed.)

Numerous individuals in my lifetime have inspired me—teachers, parents, friends and their parents, and supervisors. I like to think that I have had a “mentor mosaic” with various women (and men) nurturing different aspects of my career and my 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 professional career stand out for their very different and effective mentoring styles. In my psychiatry clerkship, Gloria Green, MD, supervised me and other trainees on the VA Hospital’s psychiatry inpatient unit in the 1980s. This diminutive Black psychiatrist had the respect of health professionals and of diverse patients, some of whom were burly, sometimes demanding, and often troubled by their traumatic combat experiences. Legend had it that she stood up to a vet who demanded drugs, despite the threat of a substantial punch. She imparted to us an unforgettable understanding of the varying dynamics underlying the new DSM diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Green planted the seed for my choice of a career in psychiatry. Luckily, she later transferred to the university outpatient clinic, where she supervised me in my third year of residency. Kind and respectful, she was honest enough to suggest that a difficult borderline patient was “punishing me,” as she had been punished by parental figures. On a different note, I will always remember her chuckling as I ran up the stairs to clinic, noting that I had a bottle of pink liquid antibiotic for my toddler that I forgot to leave at the day care center. That empathic connection let me know that she too had struggled with caring for a family during her own career. Green has long since retired, and while I recently learned that she passed in 2018, her memory remains indelibly etched in my soul.

Betty Pfefferbaum, MD, inspired my academic career for many years as departmental chair, and she 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, working with her team in schools assessing needs of children, some of whom lost parents. She nurtured research related to this traumatic event on many fronts.

As I was conducting biological studies on anxiety disorders and PTSD at the time, she supported my physiological and biological assessments of direct survivors of the bombing, thanks to a generous collaboration with Carol North, MD. We were able to determine that as long as 7 years postdisaster, direct survivors had physiologic reactivity to reminders of their ordeals and differences in cortisol when compared with community controls. This was unrelated to PTSD diagnosis and symptoms, suggesting a lasting biological footprint of trauma.

Later, Pfefferbaum advised and guided my investigations of direct bombing survivors’ long-term emotional and physical health, psychosocial functioning, and lingering memories almost 19 years after the event. She encouraged more biological research for relocated Hurricane Katrina survivors and other studies. Promoting that research invigorated my academic career. Later, when I returned to the department after a stint in the dean’s office, she welcomed me and again supported my research, educational endeavors, and clinical duties. She understood how important it is to guide her faculty in discovering and developing their passions into academic careers. We all need a purpose, and Pfefferbaum understood this—and she still does!

I sincerely hope to light the torch for others’ careers and lives in some way, just as these 2 exceptional women have for me.

Dr Tucker is vice chair of education for psychiatry and behavioral sciences, holds the Professor and Arnold and Bess Ungerman Endowed Chair in Psychiatry and the Robert Glenn Rapp Foundation Presidential Professorship of Medicine, and serves in the Adult Mental Health 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 a chance to contribute to our Women Who Inspire series.