Making a Difference: Dr. Natalie Stephens Turner

Female Physician Broke Through Barriersby Fran Thomas

FORT MYERS – Those who know Natalie Turner, a Shell Point resident for 23 years, would not be surprised to learn what a positive impact she has had on the lives of thousands women during her lifetime. In the days when women were encouraged to stay home and have babies, she was actually delivering them. Practicing under her maiden name, Dr. Natalie Stephens, she was an obstetrician and gynecologist in Chicago before moving to Florida.

Dr. Turner grew up in South Orange, New Jersey. By age five and a half, she knew she wanted to be a doctor after fracturing the epiphysis of her elbow while see-sawing with a cousin. She became fascinated by subsequent medical procedures.

“I wasn’t afraid. I thought everything was wonderful, even when they gave me ether,” she recounts. “I never changed my mind.”

It was that sense of single-mindedness that propelled her through the then “men’s club” of medical school. When it came time to go to college, she headed to Syracuse University.

“There were no medical schools in New Jersey at the time. The New Jersey constitution forbade vivisection.”

Her high grades allowed her to start medical school after only three years of undergraduate work. She was one of four women in her medical school class, all that the university would admit. They had no summer vacations. When she interned in Baltimore, the odds improved. Of twelve interns, five were women. Each woman, however, was paired with a male partner.

“They thought women were too weak to handle orthopedics and take off the plaster,” she says.

To begin her residency at a women’s hospital in San Francisco, Dr. Turner traveled alone by train from New Jersey to California. She had never before been west of Pennsylvania.

“I thought this was really something. I was going such a long way. Then I talked to others on the train. It was wartime, and one man was going from London to Australia.”

She began her own world adventures after completing her residency. Deciding to take a long-overdue vacation, she journeyed to Colombia to stay for six weeks. In later years, she would make several trips to Europe in groups sponsored by the American Medical Women’s Association. Besides the usual tourist activities, the participants always visited hospitals in each country.

During her years of practice, Dr. Turner cared for thousands of women. It was during this time in her life that she became sensitive to the special needs of women who had been raped. She became an expert on the subject and spent almost half her life waging a crusade to enlighten society on behalf of rape victims.

In 1974, with the aid of ten of her medical students at Northwestern University’s Memorial Hospital, she founded an advocacy group called Rape Victim Advocates. The purpose of the group was to turn victims into survivors.

These founding advocates educated themselves about Rape Trauma Syndrome, a cluster of physical and emotional responses experienced by nearly all those who experience sexual assault, identified by Burgess and Holmstrom in the course of their work as counselors at Boston City Hospital, in Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1975, the late Dr. Marvin Rosner arranged for Rape Victim Advocates to begin working at Grant Hospital, a neighborhood hospital near the medical school. Eventually, special programs were added for deaf victims and for children up to 17 years of age.

The Rape Victim Advocates today have two primary goals: to assure that victims of sexual assault are treated with dignity and compassion; and to effect changes in the way the legal system, medical institutions, and society as a whole respond to survivors.

The organization currently works with 17 Chicago-area hospitals, providing services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They serve more than 1,000 clients each year. From the original ten volunteers, the advocates now number 17 staff members and more than 150 volunteers. When a sexual assault victim arrives at one of these hospitals, the hospital pages an advocate to assist the survivor while he or she is in the ER. The advocate provides emotional support, medical and legal information, and referrals to other survivors. If the survivor requests additional follow-up services, a staff advocate can provide more long-term medical and legal advocacy.

After retiring from her practice, Dr. Turner and her husband chose to move to Florida, since he had gone to school in Miami. He, too, was interested in science and had studied biology.

Dr. Turner has two children and four grandchildren. Her son lives in St. Petersburg and inherited his mother’s academic excellence. He has earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate. But it is Dr. Turner’s daughter who evidently inherited her mother’s compassion for those in need – she is a social worker in St. Louis.

Because of her dedication and commitment, Dr. Turner was recently honored at the 30th anniversary of Rape Victim Advocates. Looking back over her long and successful career, Dr. Turner understands the necessity of speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves, and although retired, continues her tireless crusade on behalf of others.

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