Gwen Cooper
Hadassah Physicians Council

Following in the footsteps of Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold

Dr Gwen Cooper and Labor & Delivery staff. Photo courtesy of the author.
Dr Gwen Cooper and Labor & Delivery staff. Photo courtesy of the author.

I understand Henrietta Szold.
I felt a kinship spanning time.
She was devalued, ignored, isolated, and felt powerless.

And then she triumphed and succeeded.
Our battles were the same, the details irrelevant.
They called her passive, I call her smart.
She worked within the system, and then took control.
What was it about Henrietta Szold that so intrigued me?

I was an intelligent child but devalued and pitied because deafness in the 1960’s was synonymous with dumb. I was bullied and terrorized because I was an easy target; I looked different at 12 years of age with adult height, kinky hair, outdated clothes and hearing aids. In the school yard, I was surrounded by girls, pushed and shoved. The details are vague and suppressed now, but the feeling of terror still overwhelms me at the memory. I didn’t go back.

Then the setting changed from Brooklyn to Long Island, and life with its infinite possibilities opened up. My mom, Vera Cooper, said I am going to medical school, so that’s what I did. My mother was such a driven individual that compromise was not a choice. Without her guidance and tutelage, I would not be where I am today.

Emory University Medical School took a gamble on me. Dr. Dottie Brinsfield saw something in me that captured her attention. I wasn’t the smartest; I didn’t have the fanciest credentials. I may have been the first hearing impaired student in the program.

I denied that I needed to acknowledge that I was hearing impaired, until I almost failed anatomy class. Dr. Brinsfield stepped in and told me in no uncertain terms, that denial was idiocy and that I needed to find ways to acknowledge that I was hearing impaired. I needed to revise how I was going to learn the material, or I was going to flunk out.

I listened.
I revised.
I graduated.
I am forever grateful that she cared.

Residency under Dr. Phillip Goldstein was tough, but I knew he was determined that I should be not only a good doctor but a great one. He was an unconventional kind of a guy and did not tolerate nonsense or excuses. We all feared his displeasure and respected him. My deafness did not matter to him, it was irrelevant. He empowered me.

I opened the first female OB/GYN practice in Opelika, Alabama in 1987. It was a time of success, struggles, and sacrifice.

I had no money.
I had no business experience
I was pregnant.

Our two boys survived two full time working parents, being raised by “Mamo” (my mother-in-law), daycare and Dad. Do I have regrets? Absolutely. It was incredibly painful to miss so many life events. If I did not work, bills did not get paid. That’s how it was then. I felt incredibly pressured to carry on and pretend everything was all right. Sometimes it was, sometimes it was not.

I was overdue at 41 plus weeks with Paul and went to the hospital on Wednesday. I had Paul on Thursday afternoon and went back to work Monday morning with what we call a fourth-degree laceration. What a nightmare. Nobody else is that insane!

I searched for years for something that I could feel a part of, to support Jewish values, to give a voice to the needy, to contribute and give to a worthy cause.

I went to a Hadassah meeting and never left.
Hadassah inspired me to embrace Judaism.
Hadassah inspired me to become bat mitzvah

I visited Israel three times on Hadassah Mission trips; I cannot express how deeply it touched my soul. I am so proud and honored to be a part of Hadassah Medical Organization, which cures patients around the corner and around the world.

Fast forward 35 years, I am older, wiser and deafer. Now I am part of the Cochlear implant community and thanks to technology, which includes Bluetooth, closed captioning, and zoom, I enjoy unprecedented freedom and independence in daily living. Not only am I deaf but I also have trouble with word discrimination, so technology has been revolutionary for me.

I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with private practice and the professional community I was in. I was burned out, tired of dealing with the daily obstacles. I hid these feelings from my family and my practice. No one knew.

As I listened to a colleague last week, complaining about his work schedule, I am taken back to Thanksgiving of 2019. I was expecting family and a long-awaited relaxing weekend. At that time, I cross-covered with two other practices.  Thanksgiving was my holiday off. So a few days before, the physician on call cancelled taking calls on Thanksgiving. No compromise.

I was done. At that moment I decided to close my practice and move on.  I deserved better. I didn’t care if bills needed to be paid. I decided I must come first. By giving up control, I felt a true sense of empowerment.

I am pursuing and fulfilling another dream I had, of providing much-needed OB/GYN care to underserved communities. Currently, I travel once a month to Elko, Nevada. My motto, “one patient at a time,” makes it a reachable goal for change.

Hadassah’s motto, “The Power of Women Who Heal,” addresses spiritual healing as well as medical. Women all over this country are still struggling to be heard, are still devalued, and still have obstacles both spiritually and medically to prevent control of their own lives. Tikkun Olam – “to repair and improve the world” – is incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to “pay it forward” with compassion and kindness. I continue to strive for this, by traveling to a small community in Nevada that is in need of my skills and continue to support Hadassah’s great work.

The legacy of Henrietta Szold is the Hadassah Medical Organization. she not only brought in donations but was directly involved in the raising of structures and the care of people. Today, I am deeply grateful to her for her spirit, her strength and her service.

“In the life of the spirit there is no ending that is not a beginning”

About the Author
Dr. Gwen Cooper-Simon is a member of the Hadassah Physicians Council and a Past President of the Hadassah Auburn (Alabama) Chapter. She is an established board-certified and highly skilled OB/GYN with 35 years of experience. After she completed her medical training at Emory Medical School in Atlanta, Georgia and OB/GYN residency at Sinai Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland, she opened the first female OB/GYN practice in Opelika, Alabama. Dr. Cooper-Simon is a Fellow of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a member of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, as well as the American Medical Association. Recently, she closed her private practice in January of 2020, and is now pursuing another dream of providing much-needed OB/GYN care to facilities in need around the U.S. Currently, she travels to Elko, Nevada every month to provide medical and OB/GYN services to the community. Dr. Cooper-Simon is an avid supporter and Life Member of Hadassah, of which she is a Golden Keeper of The Gate. Dr. Cooper-Simon is also a Founder, Past President and held various board positions with Congregation Beth Shalom in Auburn, Alabama. Dr. Cooper-Simon loves to travel with her best friend, her spouse Jeffrey. She is an avid supporter of various animal charities and shelters. She enjoys various hobbies which include painting, needlepoint, reading and boating on Lake Martin in Alabama.
Related Topics
Related Posts