Casey Templeton photo
Dr. Erika Blanton, a medical school graduate from Münster, Germany, moved to Richmond in 1968, passionate to pursue her dream of specializing in women's health as an OB-GYN. But Blanton quickly realized that becoming a female doctor in the United States was still a novelty, and she was met with a great deal of opposition. "The women [at that time] were still homemakers," she said. "I wanted to go to MCV [VCU Medical Center] and was told that they do not take female residents."
The 31-year-old Blanton continued to pursue a residency. After realizing their need for obstetric doctors, VCU Medical Center hesitantly allowed Blanton to complete her residency there. Blanton quickly gained the staff's respect and was offered two positions at top medical groups in town. Upon finding out Blanton was pregnant, the groups rescinded their offers. "You had to fight all the way," she says.
After a brief period abroad in Germany, Blanton decided to accept a gynecologic endocrinology and infertility fellowship created specifically for her at VCU Medical Center in 1972. During her fellowship, Blanton was trained in laparoscopy, an innovative surgical and exam technology that was starting to be used in Richmond. "It was at that time something new," Blanton says, adding that she was one out of just a handful of Richmond doctors trained in laparoscopy. She utilized her training when she joined the Ruckers Group, a private practice, a year later, in October 1973.
The Ruckers Group later dissolved, and Blanton joined with other local doctors to create Richmond OB-GYN, a private practice. Blanton was Richmond's second female OB-GYN, but she found that partnership in a private practice did not eliminate her challenges. "Some women walked out of the office; they would say, ‘I don't want to see a woman [doctor],' " Blanton says.
As a doctor in private practice, Blanton took steps to end twilight sleep, a common practice in Richmond in the 1970s. Twilight sleep, she explains, refers to a "cocktail of drugs" given to women that put them to sleep during labor. "I did not like that at all," Blanton says. "Birthing should be managed by the patient and the physician."
By creating and teaching a series of classes on childbirth, exercise, prenatal care, labor and breast-feeding, Blanton played a vital role in providing alternatives to twilight-sleep treatment. Her practice, in collaboration with CJW Medical Center, specifically focused on offering Lamaze childbirth classes, which were very well-received. "It was very rewarding to see how women responded," she says. "It was just a time when it was exciting because these women took charge of their life, their career and the way they wanted to have babies." Lamaze caught on in the region, with VCU Medical Center and St. Mary's Hospital also forming classes. Blanton proudly adds that by the mid-'70s, twilight sleep in the area had become obsolete.
The introduction of Lamaze conflicted with regional hospitals' bylaws barring spouses from the delivery room. Lamaze classes taught mothers-to-be to work with a birthing partner (commonly the husband), who would serve as a coach during delivery. But during the '70s, Blanton says, only the mother and medical personnel were allowed in the delivery room, so she took her concerns about this bylaw to the CJW Medical Center hospital administration. Blanton says this was a gradual shift, beginning in 1973, with each hospital altering its individual bylaws.
Blanton established her own practice, Dr. Erika M. Blanton, M.D., in 1997. Blanton now is working to break some of the myths surrounding menopause. "The population has become older and grayer, and I focus a lot on that now," Blanton says. "Now I deliver the second-generation babies, and their [grand]mothers are menopausal and have different needs." Blanton says she no longer lectures but considers it a privilege to teach patients how to cope with menopause or work through labor. "I may have been the trendsetter," Blanton says, reflecting on her career, "but I did not do it alone."