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Women In Medicine Month: Leah Acosta, MD, MPH, FAAN

Posted by on Tuesday, September 19, 2023 in Uncategorized .

In honor of Women in Medicine Month, we asked leaders throughout Vanderbilt University School of Medicine to tell us about a woman in medicine who has impacted their lives. Dr. Leah Acosta, Associate Professor of Neurology and Chapman College mentor, celebrates her grandmother. 

Leah Acosta, MD, MPH, FAAN
Associate Professor of Neurology

Dr. Leah Acosta poses with her grandmother, Dr. Natividad  Yañez, at Acosta’s graduation from medical school.

When you first asked me [about a woman in medicine who had inspired me] I thought about different historical figures and people that I know now, but really the person I settled on was my grandmother. My grandmother’s full name was Natividad Veneracion Yañez. She was born and raised in the Philippines, and she was actually an OBGYN. She was a female physician when I don’t think there were that many female physicians. It was quite interesting, because when I think about the history of medicine in the United States, certainly the numbers of women in medicine have been growing over the years, which is great. But you know, when I think about when my grandmother was in medical school, around the late 1920s, early 1930s, I know it was very rare in the United States. And I was trying to get my grandmother’s biography written and I was asking her, what was it like, being a female medical student, or being a female doctor at the time, and she just kind of blew it off. I think they were segregated — men had their classes, and the women had their classes — but I really tried to probe her about, “Were there so many more men than women?” or whatnot, but she kind of almost made it sound like it wasn’t really a big deal. 

She was a physician, she was an OBGYN, she was a wife, and she was a mother of six children including my mom. Her husband was a lawyer and he was into politics. Overall, it was a very busy household. And I think what really struck me the most about my grandmother, not only being a physician, is that she was also paralyzed. So, one of my first exposures to neurology indirectly was via her and her story. When she was practicing medicine in a clinic, she was bitten by stray cat. Back in those days, anti-rabies injections were administered directly into the spine. We don’t really know if it was because of the cat bite itself, or if she got some sort of infection from the spinal injections, but basically, after that, she became paralyzed. She had five kids at that point and my mother was just a baby when it happened, but she remembers my grandmother having a really hard time. She was deep in her grief about not being able to walk anymore and unable to practice OBGYN the way she wanted to because she couldn’t physically get up to help deliver babies and things like that. My mom talked about how [my grandmother] never gave up hope of walking again. She was undergoing hydrotherapy and intense physical therapy, they had parallel bars in the house and people over to help, so they were hoping that she was going to be able to regain some aspect of her ambulation. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to do that.

I don’t know what residency was like back when my grandmother was practicing medicine, but basically, she transitioned to a family medicine practice, primary care. She continued to practice medicine for years after that point. Her heart was always in OB, but at least she was still able to practice. That was pretty inspiring for me to watch, her still retain her profession after what she experienced.

I’ve thought about this a lot recently, because I just submitted an essay about my experience with her and with neurology. You know, my grandmother lived most of her life in the Philippines. I was basically raised in the states, so every once in a while, we would go to visit. The second time I ever went, I was about ten-year- old and we were at a family Christmas party. My grandmother, who I’d only met a couple times before when she’d come to the States, and for whatever reason that night, I saw her leg move. She just kind of lifted up her leg. I was shocked, all I could think was, “What am I watching?” Then she did it again, and it wasn’t voluntary. I still to this day do not have a good explanation for it, but I remember being so excited, I ran to my mother and like, “Oh my gosh, like I saw her leg, move!” My mom was like, “You know, sometimes there are involuntary movements, and I don’t think this was something that she did on purpose,” but it was just so inspiring. At this point, she was probably in her 70s, so really it was youthful optimism. When I began becoming interested in neurology, I thought a lot about things like where I would localize my grandmother’s lesion, especially when I was in medical school learning how to examine. I thought about if she would let me examine her in that way. I never actually asked her if I could do that, I didn’t want to turn my grandmother into a test case or anything, but it was just one of those things. I was just really struck by that moment and watching her.

More and more, I’ve reflected on her whole life, like when she would take care of people who couldn’t pay and would give them medications for free. She was very generous with her time. My mother would help out in my grandmother’s clinic when she was younger. She would see her giving these free services and medications when they couldn’t pay, and she would always ask, “Why are you doing all this [free] care?” and my grandmother told her, “Well, what’s the point in me being able to diagnose somebody if I can’t really help them or treat them?” I just thought that was so interesting in light of the fact that she, herself, couldn’t be fixed by the medical system.

She was a lovely woman, so smart, a great cook, and just ran the household with a bit of an iron fist. She kind of mellowed out over the years and ended up moving in with my parents when she was in her 90s, so I got to spend a little bit more time with her. She got to come to my medical school graduation and saw me finish residency. She was still alive when my son was born. She passed away at 101, when I was after I was already on faculty here at Vanderbilt, so she’d seen me do a lot, and I think she was just really proud. My mom and her twin sister were nurses, and while of her sons went into medicine, I think she always wanted one of her daughters to. I think she was really excited that one of her granddaughters became a doctor.

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