When Pamela Bensen was a young child she liked to play doctor with her cousins and friends, but someone said: “Girls aren’t doctors, girls are nurses.” At age four, Pam looked at that person and said, “You want to bet?”
Bensen kept on that path, did well in college, and was married a few days before she started medical school at Medical College of Pennsylvania (MCP, formerly Women’s Medical College, which up to that point had graduated a large proportion of US women physicians). Bensen had a child in her 2nd year of medical school and took a semester off when her husband was sent to Vietnam. She was turned on to emergency care when she brought dinner to a med student friend who was doing a shift in the emergency department. She remembers, “It was like, pow, I like this!…” Bensen was planning on doing a rotating internship, and maybe do a year or two of surgery prior to going out to practice in an ED.
In 1970, her fourth year of medical school, pregnant again, Bensen happened to sit at lunch next to David Wagner, MD, a pediatric surgeon who was running the emergency department. He politely asked what she was planning on doing career-wise. Unaware that Cincinnati had just started an emergency medicine (EM) residency, she said, “…well, the thing I want to do doesn’t exist.” As fate would have it, when she described her interest in EM, Wagner said that he was working with the institution to develop a training program in EM, that he called acute care medicine. The program (pre-ACGME) needed approval from the American Medical Association, and he asked Bensen if she would make the case for the new program. She agreed, and traveled to Chicago. She remembers as she made her pitch to the AMA panel – a woman in her 3rd trimester of pregnancy – that “the average age in the room was 70, the average gender was 100% male.” The AMA hedged on immediately approving the MCP internship and residency, and Bensen returned to Philadelphia and delivered her baby. Unfortunately, the infant had Potter syndrome and died shortly after birth.
The AMA finally did approve the MCP program in spring of 1971, and gave as a rationale that it would be good for women to have scheduled work hours. Bensen became the first woman emergency medicine resident, and dove in to her training. She learned a memorable lesson on the first day of internship when a seizing patient came in to the ED, recalling:
I’m now Dr. Bensen, and I’m thinking – no way! I froze. The nurse took one look at me, her name was Nell, and she said, “Dr. Bensen, do you want 5 or 10 mg of IV Valium for this patient?” I said, “You had better bring 10, we might need it.” That was my introduction to the fact that the nurses were going to save my ass. They were also going to save my patient, but I had to listen to them.
Dr. Bensen went on to practice EM in the state of Maine where she was instrumental in establishing standards and training for EMS providers. She was also the first woman elected to the American College of Emergency Physicians Board of Directors. It was not an easy path. After being nominated for several years, along with some other women, but never elected, Bensen became discouraged, but never lost her spirit. At a Meet the Candidates session when asked what she would bring to the Board she said: “I bring more estrogen and a broad perspective.”
Bensen was elected to the ACEP Board in 1982. Before the first meeting she got a memo saying that she should wear a dark suit, white shirt and tie for the annual photo. When she showed up for the photo she held up two gaudy ties and asked the male members of the Board which she should wear. When Bensen noted that many Board conversations were carrying on in to the men’s room during meeting breaks, she made a motion that “when we are having a substantive discussion, all discussion stops at the door to the men’s room!” Bensen went on to have an influential role on the Board and in ACEP in various leadership capacities for two decades.
As the first woman to train in emergency medicine, Pam Bensen blazed a new trail, encountering gender bias, being stereotyped, but always forging ahead not because she was a woman, but because she loved the field of emergency medicine and saw what it could become.
The information for this essay comes from a 2004 interview of Pam Bensen by Brian Zink, and from Zink’s book: Anyone, Anything, Anytime – a History of Emergency Medicine. Mosby Elsevier 2006.