While gazing out the third-floor window at the University Health Service, Dr. Susan Ernst recalls her life purpose: “I feel like advancing reproductive care for women and working to promote the dignity of all women, particularly those challenged with physical and cognitive disabilities, is my calling.”
For almost 15 years Ernst has been chief of gynecology at UHS and director of the Gynecology Clinic for Women with Disabilities at VonVoigtlander Women’s Hospital. When reflecting upon the most rewarding aspect of her career, Ernst highlights the professional satisfaction and the pure joy associated with making even a small difference in the lives of her patients.
Because her clinic includes the challenging work of caring for patients with cognitive and physical impairment, as well as the victims of sexual assault, she said she believes it is important to calm their fears, make them feel safe, and to treat them with dignity and respect.
This love for helping others led her on a journey to Africa, as part of a collaboration between U-M and St. Paul’s Hospital Millennium Medical College (SPHMMC) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, children and women with disabilities have enormous difficulty accessing health care, due to social stigma, poverty and lack of experienced medical professionals. However, Ernst is encouraged that Ethiopian physicians are passionate about change, prompting her team to discuss ways in which they could collaborate to improve care for these patients at SPHMMC.
Her experience in Africa inspired Ernst to take further action. She is collaborating with SPHMMC and the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development to create a local clinic designed to both provide better health care for adolescents and women with disabilities, and to teach medical students and residents at St. Paul’s Hospital about the unique needs of this population of women.
At first, her project faced significant barriers — when funding fell through she wondered if this demanding endeavor was the right decision for her, both personally and professionally.
However, Ernst sought the assistance of Dr. Claire Kalpakjian, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Medical School, whose research interests include health care for women with disabilities. Together, they developed a strategy and secured funding through the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Their team is planning focus groups with adolescents and women in Addis Ababa to better identify the barriers to accessing reproductive health care.
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They also plan to survey health care providers at St. Paul’s Hospital to determine the specific difficulties they face in caring for this population. In June when they traveled to Addis, an Ethiopian architect donated his time to review the accessibility features of the clinic design. The clinic is still under development today, but Ernst hopes that it will help to improve the lives of women in Ethiopia.
The most personally rewarding aspect of her experience in Africa was the welcoming nature of Ethiopians. “They have a different perspective on the world,” she says. “People live in poverty but still have great faith, joy and happiness in their lives.
“My patients endure so many difficulties and yet have great resilience and perseverance. Despite the challenges they face, they remain optimistic and try to help others. They inspire me to teach others that all human beings are worthy of dignity and respect no matter what their abilities and backgrounds.”
Q & A
What moment in the workplace stands out as the most memorable?
A 24-year-old woman with severe cerebral palsy first met me in clinic and appeared to many as severely cognitively impaired. However, she was able to communicate perfectly through an assistive device. She taught me to never underestimate people’s ability and intelligence.
What can’t you live without?
Personally, I cannot live without my family — my husband and four children. Professionally, I cannot live without my team of colleagues at UHS and UMHS. It’s been rewarding for me to have my son, Caleb, accompany the research team to Ethiopia.
Where is your favorite spot on campus?
The Ingalls Mall, with the bell tower and the water fountain, brings me peace on busy days.
What inspires you?
My faith inspires me to serve God by serving others.
What are you currently reading?
I love historical fiction and am currently reading “The Nightingale,” by Kristin Hannah, about sisters living in France during the German occupation in World War II.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
I’m inspired by my daughter, Hannah, who is happy and determined despite her many challenges in life. I’m also inspired by my friends Senait Fisseha and Michele Heisler to pursue research and to serve others globally.