‘Access to care really changed lives’: Black Belt doctor helps mothers birth healthy babies

When Dr. Laura Lishman decided to move from Indiana to Alabama 16 years ago, she didn’t think she would be here for more than the few years it would take to earn an undergraduate degree. 

She was going to graduate from Judson College in Marion without any debt, make her way through medical school somewhere and move to Africa to dedicate her life to service as a medical missionary. Alabama was only supposed to be a temporary stop

The more time Lishman spent in Alabama’s rural Black Belt, though, the less she saw a future for herself anywhere else.

“When I first moved to Perry County, I was in major culture shock, and I realized that what God was doing was preparing my heart to serve the underserved,” Lishman said. “People right here need access to medical care.”

She saw the state’s vast maternity care deserts, the high infant and maternal mortality rates and the lack of transportation access so many rural families manage. Upon learning those facts and realizing she was positioned to do something about them, Lishman decided to make Alabama her home. 

Dr. Laura Lishman provides comprehensive medical care to residents of Marion and surrounding rural areas of Perry County.

After four years of medical school at the University of South Alabama and three years of residency at the Cahaba Medical Care Centreville Clinic, she opened the Cahaba Medical Care Marion Clinic in 2018. Lishman also completed an obstetrics fellowship, so she can perform cesarean sections when they’re needed.

“Before we opened this clinic here, there was no prenatal care available in the county,” Lishman said. “People who live here who are pregnant, they would have to either travel to Selma or to Tuscaloosa for their prenatal care and for deliveries.” 

That’s a 35-minute drive and an hour-long drive, respectively. 

It was noticeable to Lishman when the clinic opened that women in the area were not used to being able to go in for regular checkups or give birth so close to home. 

More:‘We don’t see any improvement’: Maternity care deserts grow across Alabama

For example, one woman showed up for her first appointment with Lishman about 35 weeks into her pregnancy. She had numerous STDs, abnormalities in her ultrasound and had only attended a handful of prenatal care appointments. 

When Lishman asked her why she hadn’t received more care, the woman simply said her doctor was in Demopolis, 40 miles away, and she didn’t always have a way to get there. 

Several weeks later, Lishman delivered the baby, who had to be transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit and treated for infections. 

“But then, fast forward two years when she was pregnant again, she came here for her very first prenatal visit and stuck with me through the whole thing. She came to every single appointment because it was here in town. She didn’t have to find transportation and had a very healthy pregnancy and a very healthy delivery, which was a total 180 from the previous pregnancy,” Lishman said. “That shows you how having the access to care really changed lives.”

Dr. Lishman assists with a cesarean section for one of her obstetrics patients.

Now, coming up on the Marion clinic’s five-year anniversary, Lishman is hoping to cultivate the same passion she has for rural care in other doctors. 

Cahaba Medical Care expanded its residency program this year to include a rural placement, and the Marion clinic received its first four residents in July. 

“Our research and clinical experience has proven that local access to prenatal care and delivery services can impact these critical health care metrics around infants and mothers by helping women have healthier pregnancies and babies,” Dr. John Waits, CEO of Cahaba Medical Care, said in a statement. “We’ve recognized this critical need in Perry County, and we’re committed to providing these services here to ensure all expectant mothers have access to the care they deserve.”

Residents spend their first year completing “high level rotations” in areas like the ICU, pediatrics and inpatient care in Bessemer, and then they spend their second and third years working in Marion and Camden. 

The idea is that they are getting the complete necessary training to be practicing physicians, and they’re also seeing firsthand the intense need for doctors in rural areas, especially those like Perry County that don’t have hospitals.

“I would love to see them finish their training here and start working in places like this, whether they stay here or they take a full time job in Wilcox County or you name whatever community in rural Alabama that needs access to health care,” Lishman said. “That’s the goal.”

The Cahaba Medical Care Marion clinic is at 1303 Washington St. and is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday. To schedule an appointment, call 334-247-1006.

Hadley Hitson covers children’s health, education and welfare for the Montgomery Advertiser. She can be reached at hhitson@gannett.com. To support her work, subscribe to the Advertiser.

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