December 20, 2012, started like any other day as an OB/GYN when I was called to do a precipitous delivery. I immediately saw that the baby’s heart rate was dangerously low, and I knew I had to act quickly. Several nurses helped me maintain the patient’s position to get a vacuum on the baby’s crowning head. While placing the vacuum, the patient kicked me in my brachial plexus, and my arm went numb. I changed my position to protect myself. However, as I guided the baby out, the patient kicked me again—this time across my shoulder. I immediately knew something was wrong. By the end of the delivery, the patient had also injured two of the nurses, but thankfully we ended up with a healthy mom and baby.
A few days later, I received a diagnosis of a torn labrum. “Even professional baseball pitchers can pitch with this injury,” my first orthopedist said, dismissing my concerns. But my pain was so severe that I had to ask my husband, Ryan, for help getting dressed. For the next eight months, I managed to get by with cortisone injections until one day, while performing a routine C-section, I couldn’t get my arm to do what I needed. My partner stepped in to help me finish the delivery, but at that moment, I knew that I could no longer continue like this.
After my injury, I constantly felt like I was falling short as a doctor, a wife, and a mother to my two young boys. My lowest point came after my surgery in December 2013, almost a year after the incident. “It looks like a bomb went off in your shoulder,” the orthopedist said. It was then I realized that I wasn’t going back to work. Most of my identity centered around my job as a successful, type-A physician who thrived on solving problems. Now just days after my 40th birthday, I had no idea who I was.
Depression and chronic pain marked the following weeks and months. Ryan picked up traveling nurse jobs to make up for our lost income, and I stayed home. Although I had always yearned for more time with my boys, my injury severely limited my ability to play with and take care of them. I felt worthless. I vividly remember the day I heard my son say, “My mom used to be a doctor.” It was a gut punch, and I cried on the curb outside his preschool. I received intensive mental health therapy but began thinking my life was over. I even wrote suicide notes to my family.
Then in February 2014, Ryan brought home a puppy. He said that he and the boys were not enough to get me out of bed, so I had a choice: be surrounded by filth or get up and take care of something that needed caring. I thought it was a terrible idea, and I hated him for it. But caring for our new family member helped me get out of my head. When I was at the dog park, nobody knew me as Dr. Pearson; I was just Stephanie. And I realized that Stephanie still had a lot to offer the world.
I started interviewing friends and acquaintances about potential new career paths in pharma, medical malpractice, and biotech, but nothing clicked. I bonded with a mentor who was also out on disability. We commiserated over the mental health toll and overall lack of support for physicians forced out of practice because of illness or injury. Out of these conversations, I created an online community for physicians in the same predicament, a space for us to vent without judgment and provide support. These physicians with second careers as patient advocates and nonprofit founders inspire me daily.
In the meantime, I grappled with my lack of financial recourse after my injury because I didn’t understand the fine print on my disability insurance policy. My passion for remedying this injustice and changing the insurance industry grew, and fellow physicians who heard about my plight sought me out for advice. Eventually, I became certified as an insurance broker and co-founded a physician disability insurance company that leads with education rather than sales.
Today I still mourn the physician life I so loved. But almost a decade later, I’m happy to say that I run a thriving business that helps thousands of my fellow physicians avoid the mistakes I made. My work is personally and professionally rewarding and has given me a new purpose I could never have imagined before my injury. Helping my colleagues protect their futures with the right disability insurance boosts their financial and emotional well-being and gives them peace of mind. I am incredibly fortunate to work alongside family and dear friends on this new path of helping others.
To my fellow physicians: I hope my story gives hope to anyone leaving practice by necessity or choice. It may seem like a very dark place now, but you still have so much to offer, and there is light ahead. You can do it!
Stephanie Pearson is a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and an educator for disability and life insurance for physicians. She is CEO, PearsonRavitz, an insurance advisory firm, and can be reached on Instagram @pearsonravitz and Facebook.