To celebrate Women in Medicine Month (sponsored by the American Medical Association) we wrote about one of our favorite female physicians, Dr. Michelle Bens. September's Women in Medicine Month serves as a platform to showcase the accomplishments of female physicians and highlights advocacy needs related to professional concerns of women physicians and health issues affecting women patients.
When it comes to memorable places, few spots outshine South Carolina’s romantic low country. Most people fall in love with Charleston at first sight, and it was no different for Michelle Bens, DO. An Emergency Medicine doctor, itchy feet took her to Charleston – and although she wouldn’t meet him for five years, she fell head over heels in love with the city while she was standing across the street from the home where her husband-to-be grew up.
So, if you find good things without looking for them, serendipity – unexpected good luck – has brought them to you. The plan to become a doctor, though, wasn’t luck but something Dr. Bens had dreamed about since she was six. Two people shaped Dr. Bens’ desire to become a doctor: her grandmother, who died from cancer, and her mother, who was a Critical Care nurse. “Losing my grandmother made me want to do something to help,” says Dr. Bens. “I was a teenager when my mom was in nursing school and it had a strong effect.”
Born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan, Dr. Bens loves her hometown. In fact, she attended Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine because it was in her backyard. Although it barely makes the top five largest cities in Michigan, Lansing kills the competition when it comes to education: two medical schools, one veterinary school, two nursing schools, two law schools, and, of course, Michigan State University.
Before Dr. Bens became Dr. Bens, she earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health. “I’m overeducated,” she says, laughing. She then worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doing research studies about parasite outbreaks. “It was a very fun job,” says Dr. Bens. “I was young, in my twenties, and we spent weeks traveling all over. To advance at the CDC, though, you have to be a Ph.D. or a physician. I applied to both and got into both, but medical school had always been my dream.”
Now a BLS and ACLS board-certified EM physician, Dr. Bens is a lifelong tennis lover and player who found herself wandering around Charleston one April (about ten years ago) while she was in town for a tennis tournament. “I was single, I’d lived in Michigan my whole life, and I really had no commitments,” says Dr. Bens. “I was walking around downtown thinking, I really like it here – I could move here. Then suddenly, I thought hey, I really COULD move here. Nothing is holding me back.” Dr. Bens called several area Emergency Rooms and got an interview the next day. She had to go out and buy a suit – and she got the job! The hospital was blown away because they’d just posted the job that day.
Dr. Bens worked at two top-rated Michigan hospitals before she made the 888-mile move to Charleston (an 18-hour drive through some scary mountains!). She had a full-time spot at a major hospital system but started doing locum tenens work over a decade ago.
“Locums was pretty new when I started,” says Dr. Bens. “I kept my regular job at first, but I started making some extra money and I could make my own schedule. It was so attractive that I went out on a crazy limb and quit my hospital job,” she says. “At first I didn’t book too many jobs and I got nervous, but it grew from there and all these years later I’m still working locums.”
Dr. Bens still works mostly in Charleston, but she loves locum tenens for a few reasons: “It’s a great way to stay on your toes and learn new things. I love working in other parts of the country: I get to see different populations of people and problems,” Dr. Bens says. “ER docs have a high burnout rate and locums keeps me understanding that the grass is never greener; every place has its own problems and strengths. There’s no perfect spot.”
A happily married woman these days, Dr. Bens met her also-a-doctor-husband at work. An Internal Medicine physician who works in hospice (she says he got the brains, she got the looks!), they now have a three-year-old named Michael whom she describes as “her world.”
"People sometimes ask, ‘aren’t you away from Michael if you travel to locum?’ I’m gone 12-hour days even when I’m home, so either way I’m not with my family," says Dr. Bens. "With locums, I can block my time – say I’m going to work this week, and not work another time to spend with my family.”
The perfect match is everything in tennis. That goes for locum tenens, too.
“Locum work isn’t for everyone. it’s a hard job in some ways, but it’s nice to have control over your schedule – I can work as little or as much as I want. It’s so nice because I’m a mom, and I can block my work times.” Most of her family still lives in Michigan, too, so she piggybacks trips home with her jobs.
Every ER is different, but they’re also the same. Dr. Bens compares being an ER doctor to being a chef: you have a bunch of pots on the stove, some in the oven…and you have to put it all together and serve it at the same time. She loves every minute of it though, and shared this story about one patient:
“A lady who was mildly autistic came into the ER a short while ago (a lot of people make ER visits that aren’t emergencies because of insurance issues). You have to filter what’s important and what’s not,” says Dr. Bens.
“The patient came in with an anxiety reaction, and when I asked her what set her off, she said she was upset because her mom passed away from Breast Cancer and she’d just had an abnormal mammogram. She didn’t know what to do because she doesn’t have insurance.”
Dr. Bens scheduled an ultrasound and exam, telling the patient, “You could be fine, and then you can stop worrying about it!” The patient showed up the next morning and everything was negative. “It made me feel good because someone else might have seen her and pushed her out the door, and our hospital made sure she had access to what she needed.”
While locum tenens helps satisfy her wanderlust, Dr. Bens still gets the travel bug. She journeyed to England this year to attend Wimbledon, which she says is a lot smaller than you think. She still plays tennis, too. “It helps combat my frustrations.” Talk of tennis turned to talk of people like Bjorn Borg, whom her Swedish Grandmother adored (you go girl!), and that led to a great story to end with: Dr. Bens was attending another tennis tournament recently when she struck up a conversation with the gentleman seated next to her. Turns out, he was Thomas Johansson, a retired (Swedish) tennis champion who has won four grand slams, and he wasn’t there to watch – he was coaching Maria Sakkari, a Greek professional player!
When the admissions committee reads the personal statement of each medical school candidate – the most dreaded part of med school applications – there’s a list of things wanna-be doctors are told not to write. Something tells me our Spartan, Michelle Bens, got hers just right.