Women Caring for Women

NewYork-Presbyterian’s female OB-GYN chiefs share the top things women need to know about their health today.

Whether it’s the joy of delivering a baby for the first time as a medical student or the despair of seeing a woman suffer a serious pregnancy complication, NewYork-Presbyterian’s female OB-GYN chiefs all faced defining moments that drive their work.

In recognition of Women’s Health Week, Health Matters asked five female OB-GYN chiefs from NewYork-Presbyterian hospitals to share why they’ve dedicated their careers to caring for women and what they want women to know about their health today.

Dr. Mary D’Alton, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and director of services at NewYork-Presbyterian Sloane Hospital for Women

Why I care for women: Women are the heart and anchor of a family, and caring for them is a tremendous privilege. I entered the subspecialty of maternal-fetal medicine (MFM), which focuses on high-risk pregnancies, at a time when we were experiencing phenomenal innovation in ultrasound technology. These innovations allowed us to put eyes on the fetus during pregnancy, make diagnoses, and even develop in utero therapies unlike never before. It was a very exciting time, but I noticed that we were not seeing this same progress and innovation in maternal health. And, in fact, maternal mortality and morbidity (complications) were increasing in the United States. Since 2010, I’ve focused on mom — how do we identify her risk, how do we mitigate it, and what improvements to research, education, and clinical care are needed? That shift to focusing on the “M” in “MFM” was definitely a defining moment for me, one for which I will forever be grateful occurred.

Words of wisdom: The most important thing for women to know about their health is that they should listen to themselves and be sure that their providers are listening to them. My father, who was the general practitioner in the small town in Ireland I grew up in, always said, “If you want to know what’s wrong with a patient, ask her.” Women know their bodies, and we, as providers, need to be sure that we are including them as integral members of their care team.

Dr. Laura Riley, obstetrician and gynecologist-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine

Why I care for women: I became interested in women’s health in medical school after my first rotation in obstetrics and gynecology and delivering my very first baby. It was a low-risk, uncomplicated delivery and the family allowed me to really participate as a medical student in what was clearly a personal and amazing experience for them. I realized at that moment that I wanted to be part of that experience. And then, over the course of medical school and residency I started to see all the different things that can go awry, and I knew I wanted to work to do everything I could to help women have that perfect birth experience like the one I first witnessed.

Words of wisdom: Advancing maternal age is no joke. As infertility therapy advances, women who previously never would have thought of getting pregnant are now pregnant, and we need to be able to take care of them. Overall, women need to recognize that their own health is incredibly important as they are thinking about the health of everybody else. They think about the health of their partner and their children and in that, they sometimes forget about their own health. Prevention is just as important for a woman’s health as it is for her child getting vaccinated or her husband getting his blood pressure checked.

Dr. Dara Matseoane-Peterssen, chief of the Division of General Obstetrics and Gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons

Why I care for women: I decided when I was 10 that I would become a doctor who took care of kids. My youngest sister had asthma and was frequently in the ER. I wanted to learn how to take care of her myself and didn’t consider that she’d be an adult by the time I was trained and ready. But in my third year of medical school, I did my OB-GYN rotation and assisted on my first normal delivery. I assumed I would be fascinated by the newborn. Instead, I was drawn to the mother! I was grateful to her for allowing me to support her, felt wonder and amazement that she had grown and delivered another human, and just knew I wanted to take care of people like her going forward. My desire to make sure our patients are well cared for is also what motivates me to work in administration and education — to ensure our systems are set up to provide good care, and to teach and inspire the next generation of physicians.

Words of wisdom: I encourage women to get the HPV vaccine. The FDA has approved it for use in people ages 27–45. Women in this age group who have not been vaccinated can now reduce their risk of acquiring HPV infections, which can lead to cervical cancer and genital warts. Vaccination does not mean that routine cervical cancer screenings can stop. Women should still receive regular screening Pap tests as recommended for their age group and health history.

Dr. Anna Burgansky, chief of the Division of General Obstetrics and Gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons

Why I care for women: The most rewarding aspect for me is the ability to create a lifelong connection with my patients. From teenage years through adulthood, I help them plan a family, guide them through pregnancy and childbirth, and keep them in good health for many years after. One of the defining moments in my career was caring for a patient in the aftermath of a severe complication. The patient had preeclampsia with severe hypertension, which caused her to have an acute stroke. She had an emergency cesarean and the baby did well. The patient, however, required emergency brain surgery, a long ICU stay, and extensive rehabilitation. Seeing the long-term effects on the patient and her family was devastating. The case sparked my interest in preventable maternal mortality and morbidities and led to my involvement in 2015 in the Safe Motherhood Initiative, which works to reduce maternal deaths and complications in hospitals across New York State. Today, I continue this work locally and regionally, focusing on improving clinical guidelines and standardizing the way clinical teams respond to common obstetric emergencies.

Words of wisdom: There is strong scientific evidence that pregnancy is an important opportunity to predict women’s future health risks. We know that women with common pregnancy-related complications, such as preeclampsia, preterm birth, low fetal weight, placental abruption, and diabetes are at significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease later in life. For these women, regular care with their primary care provider, lifestyle modification, regular screening, and early intervention are critically important. Women need to know about their future health risks and use every opportunity to prevent chronic illness and disability.

Dr. Meera Garcia, chief of the Division of General Obstetrics and Gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital, regional director of women’s health services for New York-Presbyterian Medical Group Hudson Valley, and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons

Why I care for women: I grew up in Bangalore, India, and Dayton, Ohio, and although the cultures were wildly different, I noticed that women who understood their bodies seemed to be healthier, more self-aware and self-assured. Since that realization, I have worked to educate women to know as much as they can about their own bodies, to address their physical and emotional needs, and to welcome challenges in all facets of their lives with confidence.

Words of wisdom: We must live as healthily as we can, knowing that we cannot control every factor that will affect our health. The first step is a diet that consists predominantly of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins such as legumes, eggs, and seafood, with only occasional meat, and lots of soluble (decreases cholesterol) and insoluble (prevents constipation) fiber. The second step revolves around maintaining ideal body weight. A normal body mass index (BMI) reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high-risk pregnancy, and cancer. And finally, as heart disease is the silent killer of women, 30–40 minutes of aerobic exercise at least three or four times a week, whether it be brisk walking, running, biking, or swimming, is conducive to a healthy heart.

Learn more about women’s health.