Trailblazing health providers tell stories, share hard-earned advice

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Dr. Laura Knight told how, during her fellowship, she was glad to be seen as just another one of “the fellows.”

Dr. Laura Knight told how, during her fellowship, she was glad to be seen as just another one of “the fellows.”

Sharing advice and often-amusing stories, four Wichita health providers recounted their careers as trailblazing women in the male-dominated fields of medical and dental care.

They told of wearing high heels and dresses instead of scrubs and working around an absence of locker rooms and maternity leave. They recalled how male physicians who angrily tossed surgical instruments were tolerated while women were called out for such behavior. They remembered how every CME event had a “wives’ program” teaching skills like giftwrapping. And they displayed how resilience and focus carried them through.

Dr. Patricia Wyatt-Harris, the first woman who went through Wichita’s OB/GYN residency married and pregnant, said: “I guess I was the first of a lot of things, but I don’t think of it like that. … I just worked as hard as everybody else did” and let that speak for itself.

“Trailblazers: Senior Women Clinicians of Wichita” was an opportunity for practitioners, residents and students “to learn about all who walked before,” said Nancy Davis, assistant dean of faculty development at KU School of Medicine-Wichita. The Aug. 8 event was the second held by Wichita Women in Health Professions, a new group at KUSM-Wichita. MSSC members Drs. Wyatt-Harris and Laura Knight were joined on the evening’s panel by Arlene Evans-DeBeverly, a physician assistant, and Dr. Lucynda Raben, a dentist. MSSC members attending included Drs. Anne Walling, Natalie Sollo, Sheryl Beard, Tracy Williams and Garold Minns, dean of KUSM-Wichita.

Dr. Anne Walling told about the Only Woman in the Room history project.

Dr. Anne Walling told about the Only Woman in the Room history project.

Dr. Walling said the project evolved from an initial effort to provide support for older physicians confronting issues such as retirement and caregiving for parents. When “the stories kept getting richer,” the need to record them became evident.

“Am I old enough to be a pioneer?” Evans-DeBeverly asked at the start of her segment. She then told how her mother and twin sister, 1936 high school graduates, convinced Wichita Municipal University to create a nursing program and began what’s now the College of Health Professions. The lesson was, “if there’s a problem, resolve it.”

She recalled how surgical instruments were “huge” and how nurses’ gift of appropriately sized ones “touched me more than you’ll ever know.” She said her decision to “focus intensely” on gynecology came from a lack of attention to women’s medical problems.

Dr. Wyatt-Harris chose obstetrics and gynecology after a rotation in Greensburg and a birth involving a prolapsed umbilical cord. The procedure was the “most exciting, fulfilling oh-my-God experience.”

When interviewing for residency, administrators asked if she was going to have babies – “they were really worried about that.” Once pregnant, she had to use sick and vacation time to cover maternity leave, since there was none at the time. The next year was harder than pregnancy, because she had virtually no time off.

She now focuses on gynecology and is a certified menopause practitioner, interjecting “because I’m menopausal!” to much laughter.

Dr. Raben told of training at the University of Iowa and then practicing with her father. She recalled a professor using slides of Playboy models in lectures. So woman students swapped those slides out with male nudes from Playgirl, earning a trip to the dean’s office, where the professor fumbled to make his case.

She remembered a bank telling her, when planning to buy out her father, that they couldn’t provide a loan, because “we’ve never made a loan that size to a woman.” Still, “it’s been a great ride,” said Dr. Raben, chairman of the Delta Dental of Kansas board.

Dr. Knight, a retired radiologist, went to University of California-San Francisco, where 1 in 10 students in her 1968 medical school class were women. During her fellowship, the attending didn’t see her as a woman but as “one of the fellows” – just what she wanted.

Looking around the room at medical students, residents, PA students and ones from other medical professions, Dr. Knight encouraged them to “Enjoy it. Look how far you’ve gotten.” And whatever you do, “do it with passion.”

LEARN MORE: Wichita Women in Health Professions is a new group formed at KUSM-Wichita to provide networking, mentoring and professional development opportunities for physicians and other health providers. Its next event will be an Oct. 3 mixer with the topic of “Strike a Pose! Power Body Language for Women.” To learn more, contact Julie Galliart at (316) 293-3560 or