A Passion for Caring
Heather Hirsch '04 attributes success in women's healthcare to liberal arts upbringing
Dr. Heather Hirsch ’04 recently shared her expertise in menopause management while leading grand rounds at SUNY Upstate Medical University, the teaching hospital she attended. Her life’s passion evolved on the Hill in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences. There her dual major in biology and women’s & gender studies (WGS) led to a medical career that intersects with her commitment to justice for women.
“This trajectory makes a lot of sense,” says Hirsch, an internist and assistant professor specializing in women’s health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “My career path blends my internal passion, which has always been science and women’s health.”
WGS courses “opened a perspective I’d never seen before,” Hirsch says. “I was learning not just about the history of women, but all the things that led to the discrimination we still see today.” She describes “numerous gaps for care for women that come from sexism and ageism, and it’s not just the obvious areas like reproductive care.”
After a residency in internal medicine at SUNY Upstate, Hirsch completed a fellowship in women’s health at Cleveland Clinic. The clinic attracts “women from all over the country because no one would prescribe the hormone therapy that they needed,” she explains. “I thought this was an area where there was a dramatic need and I could make a difference.”
Like many liberal arts students, Hirsch’s career path did not follow a straight line. At one point, she planned to pursue research, until “I realized I really loved patient interaction.” She started her residency in obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) because she “always had a strong passion to take care of women,” she recalls. But, she found, “I wasn’t good at being up in the middle of the night.” A two-year fellowship at Cleveland Clinic reinforced her commitment to women’s health throughout the reproductive cycle. After “delivering a few hundred babies,” her practice now focuses on office gynecology and internal medicine.
Hirsch’s dual major provided “two lenses: quantitative science, where I could drift [into] the lab, and qualitative reading and thinking and writing.” She seeks the same balance in her medical practice. “I get to spend real time with patients, about 40 to 60 minutes for the initial intake,” she says. Her patients come from all walks of life. “We also typically get to talking about philanthropy at Planned Parenthood or sex trafficking or paternity leave,” she adds. “We’re looking at these broader issues and how they shape medicine and the health and lives of women.”
Her focus on menopause makes sense because “internists are used to thinking about chronic conditions,” she says. “It’s a chronic change. It lasts forever.” Teaching physicians means she “can reach tons more patients,” she adds. “I’d like to help more physicians become knowledgeable about this. Half the population goes through menopause. A third of their life is spent in menopause, and if no one discusses the implications or how your body is changing, that is sexist and unfair.”
In her January visit, Hirsch addressed SUNY Upstate medical students, residents and faculty. “They said this was information no one has talked about in a long time,” she says. “Menopause is a topic where the pendulum is swinging back to the side where we know there are a lot of benefits to replacing your hormones. A lot of women were and still are needlessly suffering. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Hirsch, a Remembrance Scholar, wrote her application essay about the honor she felt at representing one of the 35 Syracuse students who died in the 1988 Pan Am 103 terrorist bombing. She also wrote about her grandfather, who was an OB-GYN. “He was always passionate about women’s health,” she says. “I think it is in my DNA.”