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Having a Husband Who is a Doctor

Marsha D. Raulerson, MEd, MD, FAAP
September 16, 2019

Editors’ note: This is one of a series of “AAP Voices” posts honoring Women in Medicine Month.

​Having a husband who is a doctor and two young children almost kept me out of medical school. My grades were good, my MCAT score acceptable and I was passionate about my goal to become a pediatrician. But it was the 1970s and I was 32 years old.

I was turned down by six medical schools and was an alternate at my alma mater, the University of Florida College of Medicine, where my husband was the senior fellow in renal medicine. The dean at one med school where I interviewed gave me a hard look and said, “Who do you think you are, waltzing in here at your age with two children thinking you can be a doctor?”

Growing up, I didn’t know any women who were doctors. Being a physician was nowhere on my radar. My college degree was in English, and I took a job teaching to put my husband through medical school.

Dan was drafted after finishing his internship and immediately went to Vietnam. Copies of his New England Journal of Medicine were piling up. I started reading the fascinating case studies in each issue, which piqued my interest in medicine.

How becoming a parent led to becoming a doctor
That year, we adopted our daughter, Robbie, from a Catholic orphanage in Danang. When I met her in Japan, she was five months old, weighed only eight pounds, had a staph infection and cried incessantly. I thought she was beautiful.  When we returned to the US, she immediately developed bronchiolitis.

Caring for my new daughter sparked my interest in medicine even more and I realized it was my “calling” to be a pediatrician. Unfortunately, I had no background in the sciences. I didn’t even take chemistry or physics in high school. I took a leave of absence from working on my doctoral dissertation in education and with intense determination began two grueling years of very competitive premed courses. I often tell people: “going to medical school was easier than finishing that dissertation.”

Admission to medical school took a turning point when I interviewed at Emory. I sat with two other candidates at a long table across from the entire admissions committee. We were all asked to describe the most significant event in our life. The young man talked first about winning a football game. The young woman described how exhilarating it was being named homecoming queen.

My turn: I described the first time I saw my daughter. My husband had flown with her in a medivac plane from Saigon to an air force base near Tokyo. She was wearing a stained tee shirt and a blue chux for a diaper. I was overwhelmed with joy when Dan placed her in my arms. I am convinced to this day that the story about Robbie was the reason I was accepted to Emory and ultimately to medical school.

Dr @MarshaDRaulerso, who has practiced pediatrics for nearly 40 years, says her path to medical school was both inspired – and nearly prevented – by having a family.” #AAPvoices #WIMMonth

A surprised, and infuriated, medical school dean
The following year, my husband’s mentor, Dr. J. Robert Cade, the inventor of Gatorade, and Dr. Stetson, the medical school dean, strongly recommended the admission committee accept a “transfer student” from Emory whose husband was a University of Florida renal fellow.

The chairman of the admission committee was furious when he found out it was me. He wrote a letter to the Gainesville Sun saying, “Why would a school teacher with two children who is married to a doctor want to go to medical school?” At home I put his picture on my desk reminding me to push on when I felt overwhelmed. Fast forward three years:  in clinic one day, he put his arm around me and told his staff: “This is the brightest student I have ever had—and she reminds me of my wife.” Apology accepted.

Medical school ended with two surprises. I was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha, the national medical honor society. And I was matched to the only pediatric residency program to which I had applied. I would stay in Gainesville as a pediatric resident at Shands Teaching Hospital to be supervised by one of my heroes, Dr. Gerold Schiebler.

Dr Schiebler was and is a superb advocate for children. He was the major contributor to developing the Children’s Medical Service for the state of Florida. When the legislature was in session, he spent much of his time in Tallahassee speaking up for children and for the profession of medicine.

Unfortunately, while Dr. Schiebler was in the state capital, we felt he was neglecting his residents. Our call room was the size of a large broom closet. Four residents could catch a quick nap in its two bunk beds. Back then, residents were called to start all the IVs. When I stumbled back to the “closet” after starting an IV, someone else would invariably be in the bed I just vacated. One of my fellow residents learned to sleep standing up in a corner. I remember one emergency page when the person in the top bunk fell on me as we both tried to rush out the door.  Making things even worse for us, pediatric residents were the only ones in that humongous medical center who did not get meal tickets.

During my second year of residency, we decided to stop dictating discharge summaries until we got a decent sleep room and meal tickets. Dr Schiebler retaliated by holding our paychecks. I was as feisty then as I am now. Since my husband was already a physician, I had enough money in the bank to help out my fellow residents so we could continue the chart boycott. We got meal tickets. We got a new break room.

Dr. Schiebler was famous for his narcolepsy which prevented him from driving a car (probably because for years as a cardiology attending, he made rounds at 2 a.m.) When he traveled to Tallahassee, one of the male residents always drove him. I always wanted to go to Tallahassee and learn to lobby legislators.  Years later, when I got the opportunity to roast him at an alumni meeting, I questioned him on his favoritism to the male residents. He smiled and said: “Marsha Dendler (he always called me by my German maiden name), how would it look if I took a beautiful resident to spend the night in Tallahassee?”  Well said.

My last few months of that second year were traumatic. My husband moved to Alabama to become director of the first dialysis center in rural lower Alabama. The kids stayed with me until April but had to move when I started my demanding NICU rotation. I was pregnant. 

The dean at one med school where I interviewed gave me a hard look and said, `Who do you think you are, waltzing in here at your age with two children thinking you can be a doctor?’”

Early in the second trimester of my pregnancy, I started bleeding. I didn’t think I could take time off. I miscarried, spent one night in hospital after a D and C, and missed two days in the NICU. My advisor, whom I admired (and still do), summoned me to his office. He told me that I had no business getting pregnant during my residency. He said I was being unfair to the other pediatric residents who had to cover for me.  

In order to be close to my family, I started my third year of residency at Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Pensacola, Fla. They offered me a place to stay. But when I was not on night call, I drove the 55 miles twice a day for a year. I would awaken before daylight and get home well after dark. But I was with my kids.

Continuing to buck protocol
During my first month at Sacred Heart, I was the senior resident on call. We had new interns who knew as little as I did about how things were done at a Catholic Hospital. So on the 4th of July weekend, I grabbed a scrub suit, made rounds, admitted a patient, and then watched fireworks from a fourth-floor window. The next day I was told by a kindly nun that women residents wore scrub dresses and stockings! I would have none of it. Since that time, scrub suits have become the preferred work garb for all doctors. I loved having a nun pray before I started a difficult IV or when a patient was critically ill—but I was not their favorite person.

The second time I bucked protocol was my first night on call with a new male intern. The call room was incredible: spacious, with two large beds and a separate bathroom. I thought nothing of sharing the room with the intern. After all, I had experience two years of night call in a broom closet, often with three male doctors. The next day I was summoned to the head nun’s office. “Dr. Raulerson, you cannot sleep with the interns.” I did not know that there were other on-call rooms.   

When I first moved to the small town in lower Alabama where I have lived and worked now for 39 years, I visited the local medical center to inquire about a job. The CEO told me they had no need for a pediatrician in Brewton. No woman had practiced medicine in that town before me.

With the help of my husband, I started my own private practice. The day my office opened the schedule was full. I had grown up in a big city and was not sure how I could adapt to a small town where everyone knows everyone and many are relatives--I can speak to this firsthand as a ‘grand-pediatrician’ who is now treating patients whose grandparents I treated when I first started practicing pediatrics here! But it has been an incredible career. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

It did take some getting used to for me and for the community. One of the family practice doctors called me “Miz Raulerson” for the first two years. Under my breath I would say: “Mrs. Raulerson is my mother-in law.” The nurses finally settled on calling me Dr. Marsha—the title I still like the most.

My feistiness continues to serve me well.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About the Author

Marsha D. Raulerson, MEd. MD, FAAP, is has practiced community pediatrics in Brewton, AL, for nearly four decades. She is an Alabama Community Access to Child Health (CATCH) Facilitator and the AAP District X CATCH Facilitator Chair for the Reaching Children Building Systems Of Care. In addition, she is a past chair of the of the AAP Committee on Federal Government Affairs for the American Academy of Pediatrics and past president of the Alabama AAP chapter. She and her husband, Dan, a local nephrologist, have three grown children and four grandchildren and were foster parents for seven children. Dr. Raulerson is a past recipient of the AAP's Community Pediatrician of the Year award, and the academy's Alabama chapter created the Marsha Raulerson Advocacy Award in her honor.