Top Doctors for Women
Okay, ladies. If there’s one lesson to be learned on the next few pages, it’s the importance of taking charge. Enough with putting off that doctor’s visit or thinking it’s too late to ditch bad habits. We hope the stories of how five women trumped recent health scares will inspire you to treat your body well, whether it’s overcoming the fear of bad news or finding the motivation to live your best life. (If you won’t listen to us, listen to Oprah.) Here's to all of Rhode Island's incredible physicians and to the women below, who remind us that being a good patient is as important as having a great doctor.
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Ready to Exhale
After a surprising health scare and a cutting-edge surgery, Barbara Bishop is grateful to the family, friends and doctors who helped her through.
“I never felt so sick,” says Barbara Bishop. The fifty-two-year-old mother of three had always kept fit and rarely fell ill when she suddenly was sidelined with pneumonia in both lungs at the end of last summer. She hadn’t fully recovered when she went for an x-ray four weeks later, so neither she nor her primary care doctor, Kristin Poshkus, were too concerned that the x-ray came back as abnormal. “She said it wasn’t uncommon and to come back for another x-ray in four more weeks,” says Barbara. A month later, Barbara was back to her regular routine of walking four and half miles, five days a week. She was surprised when Poshkus called to say her latest x-ray still didn’t look right and sent her for a CAT scan.
“I was sure everything was fine,” says Barbara, a nonsmoker and former runner. “I felt great.” But she received unexpected news: The scan showed increased markings on her lower left lung. “My doctor said she wanted to send me to a cardio-thoracic surgeon, who would be the best person to determine what was wrong,” Barbara recalls. “That definitely made me a little anxious.”
Poshkus scheduled a visit to Laurie Reeder at Kent Hospital, who has the distinction of being the only female thoracic surgeon in Rhode Island. “The minute my husband and I walked into the office, we felt comfortable,” says Barbara. “She’s sweet, she’s lovely, she’s full of energy — and she said to me, ‘I know what it is.’ ”
The markings turned out to be a mass of lung tissue with abnormal blood vessels, a very rare condition known as pulmonary sequestration, which shows up in infants and young children as repeated pneumonia. “Barbara never had anything like that, just this one episode,” marvels Reeder. “She’s very physically fit and active, which is what made it so shocking.” The condition is risky. “It can create long-term blood pressure issues and heart strain from pumping extra blood to the wrong place,” says Reeder. “That portion of the lung doesn’t exchange oxygen normally, so it is prone to recurring infections.”
Barbara, who had never been in the hospital except for the birth of her daughters, found herself facing a surgical cure. “It seems pretty drastic, but the treatment is to cut out that part of the lung,” says Reeder. Typically, the procedure involves making an incision that wraps from the chest to the back and splitting open the rib cage. However, a relatively new technique known as video-assisted thoracic (VAT) surgery offered the possibility of a minimally invasive procedure. “A camera allows you to see inside so you don’t have to open everything up,” says Reeder. “It’s not always an option, but I like to use this approach whenever I can. Recovery is dramatically better — faster, less painful.”
Prior to operation day, Barbara made a conscious effort not to let fear get the better of her. “Every once in a while a ‘what if’ thought sneaks into your head, but I just thought, ‘I’m not going to go there. I’m going to stay positive,’” she says. She also had a strong support system to back her up: “My husband and I have very strong faith. We had so much support from our daughters and family and friends and our church. It was overwhelming, in a good way. I felt very fortunate.”
The technical challenge of VAT surgery means it can be long. (“Everyone in the waiting room had the hardest job,” Bar-bara says.) Rest and a gradual return to exercise helped along her recovery; in six weeks, she was back to her daily walks. With half her left lung left, she can feel a difference when she takes a deep breath, but in time, says Reeder, the lung will fully adjust to pick up the slack. “Because Barbara never smoked and exercises regularly, the lungs should return to close to their normal capacity within a year,” she says.
Barbara’s experience underscores the importance of following up on appointments — she and Poshkus took her x-rays seriously even though she felt fully recovered from pneumonia. “No one wants to hear bad news, but being proactive about it has got to be better than walking around afraid to see a doctor,” Barbara says. “We don’t know if it was my lung that caused the pneumonia or if the pneumonia was just a coincidence that clued us in, but it was a blessing in disguise.”
I Heart Fish
After two health scares caused by thirty years of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, Barbara MacDonald changed her ways, thanks to a top cardiologist, a supportive husband and lots of seafood.
There’s something about the simple directness in Dr. Barbara Roberts’ voice when she says, “If it walks, try not to eat it” that can turn a lifelong meat-eater into an instant seafood vegetarian. “She’s like Sister Superior,” says Barbara MacDonald, cheerfully describing the cardiologist who inspired her to change her life at sixty-nine years old. “She sets the ground rules and I follow.”
Barbara was in her mid-thirties when she first began having trouble with high blood pressure and high cholesterol (“That’s a good long time,” she says), relying mostly on medication to keep her healthy throughout the years. But six years ago, her gynecologist became concerned that her blood pressure wasn’t being properly managed. He phoned Roberts, director of the Women’s Cardiac Center at The Miriam Hospital, to ask if she would take on Barbara as a patient.
Adjustments to her medications and a lifestyle overhaul were the first order of business — Barbara had to quit smoking, exercise and follow a seafood vegetarian diet. “I think I scared her,” says Roberts. “I tell my patients, you may get away with breaking the laws of man, but if you break the laws of nature, you will always pay. The only question is when.”
Barbara’s “when” came two years later: Roberts heard bruits in one of her arteries during a check-up. “They’re abnormal sounds made when there is a build-up of plaque narrowing the artery,” Roberts says. A series of tests showed an increasing blockage in Barbara’s neck, even though she experienced no dizziness or symptoms. Roberts sent her to thoracic and vascular surgeon Dr. James Fingleton, who performed a carotid endarterectomy to clear the artery. “I was a nervous wreck at first,” says Barbara, recalling the days leading up to the surgery. “There’s always that fear of the unknown, but you have to overcome it. I had confidence in my doctors.”
The surgery was successful, but Barbara got a second scare last year after she started feeling “heaviness” in her legs during walks with friends. “I was having trouble keeping up,” she says. “I kept stopping to ‘gaze at the scenery’ because I didn’t want to say my legs were bothering me.” She joined the Y: “I thought it was old age and that I was just getting out of shape.” Howevever, when she went in for her annual carotid check-up that fall, the technician noticed her blood pressure was skyrocketing and sent her directly to Roberts’ office. “We were worried she had developed a blockage in an artery to the kidney,” says Roberts. “We took an MRA. It showed significant blockages in the arteries to her legs, which was causing the pain she got in her calves when she walked.” This time, Barbara didn’t require surgery — Dr. Immad Sadiq, an interventional cardiologist at Miriam, performed an angioplasty, inserting a catheter through the skin to dilate the arteries and implant stents. “The stents look like mesh tubes,” says Roberts. “They’re like scaffolding that keeps the artery from closing.”
Within weeks, Barbara felt well enough to go with her husband on their yearly trip to Florida. “These doctors deserve so much credit,” she says. “I have so much confidence in Dr. Roberts because she has that confidence in herself. You can see she isn’t trying to guess or beat around the bush — she’s straightforward and honest.”
After more than thirty-five years as a cardiologist, Roberts knows it isn’t always easy to convince people to treat their bodies well, even though so much of the illness she sees is within her patients’ control. “Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is about 80 percent preventable. Of all the risk factors, there are only two you can’t change: age and family history,” says Roberts. “Smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, abnormal blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes…all completely preventable, treatable or avoidable.”
Should Barbara ever be tempted to revert to her old ways, she has a secret weapon to keep her on track: her husband, a shellfisherman who keeps her supplied with plenty of fresh seafood for her heart-healthy diet. “I can do quahogs anyway you want them,” says Barbara. “Baked, grilled, sauteed…luckily, I enjoy fish.”