Faith, compassion drive 2023 Rhoads Humanity in Medicine Award recipient
The 2023 recipient of the Paul S. Rhoads Humanity in Medicine Award is Erika Brandenstein, MD.
Sept. 22, 2023 -- To understand who Erika Brandenstein, MD, is as a person and a physician, you need to hear the story of how she became involved in the creation of The NEST, a maternal treatment program.
The number of babies born to mothers who were misusing substances was on the rise, and as an OB/GYN, Dr. Brandenstein felt powerless to change the situation. So, one day, she went into a patient's room and sat down on the bed next to her.
"I wanted her to tell me her story. How did she get here? What were her hopes, dreams, plans? How did she feel about having a baby?" Dr. Brandenstein said.
"What I discovered was these women are not different than any other women. They have the same aspirations for their future. These mothers loved and wanted their babies, and the main thing standing in their way was their addiction. They hoped for something better."
From there, Dr. Brandenstein began to research what it takes to overcome addiction. She found a complex set of factors to consider, particularly for those who are pregnant. They need medical care, socio-economic support, counseling, therapy, and more.
She pushed for the creation of a program tailored to meet those needs and help moms-to-be turn their lives around. She took a course on how to prescribe medications to treat opioid withdrawal and addiction.
"Because Reid is so great and wonderful, they just decided they were going to go for it. They joined with Meridian Health Services, and it happened," Dr. Brandenstein said.
"We came up with a wonderful, beautiful environment women can be proud of where they can come in and get prenatal care. They can get medications there. We have a psychiatrist. We have a counselor. We have group therapy. There's a kitchen there where they can come cook if they want to. There are toys for their kids to play with when they bring their family. There's a little nursery. We try to make it like a home environment. When a woman walks through the door, if she has decided she is ready for change, we have all the resources there to help them do it."
It's that desire to help others, to live a life of faith and service, to study the world around her that led Dr. Brandenstein to become the 43rd recipient of the Paul S. Rhoads Humanity in Medicine Award.
Her selection was announced Friday night at an annual medical staff appreciation and new physician reception in Richmond. Nominations were solicited from patients, physicians, and healthcare workers.
"Dr. Brandenstein is deserving of this award because of her leadership, because of her creativity, because of her ability to create a new niche for services that wasn't there before," said Craig Kinyon, Reid Health President/CEO. "Those things are what brings forward candidates for this prestigious recognition."
Named after its first honoree in 1983 -- the late Paul S. Rhoads, MD -- the Humanity in Medicine Award honors the memory of Dr. Rhoads for his service to patients and medicine. He was the founding director of Reid Health's Medical Education Department and helped organize the hospice program and the Wayne County adult clinic for the indigent.
"I'm so humbled and honored and just surprised at being chosen for this award," Dr. Brandenstein said. "I've always looked up to a lot of the physicians who have won it in the past. I've admired them and their commitment to the community. I've really strived for that, to be fully invested in Richmond."
"When I think about what a doctor should be, she exemplifies it to a T. She puts her patients first. She's very caring, understanding, non-judgmental, a religious woman, and she leads by example. She's just a great doctor and person. Our patients are willing to wait for her if they have to because they want to see her. They know she's in the top tier of doctors." -- Sunny Thompson, MA
A native of South Bend, Indiana, Dr. Brandenstein graduated from the University of Notre Dame before going to the University of Illinois College of Medicine's campus in Rockford, Illinois.
"I wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember, way back to the beginning," she said. "In my mind, I feel like I couldn't do anything else. I don't even feel like I had a choice because what we are -- the intricacies of being a human, the unique creation that we are -- what better thing to study and know than that? So, in my mind, it just always seemed like the right thing to do."
Growing up with four siblings, Dr. Brandenstein was an explorer at heart.
"I had an amazing childhood. We were all very close to each other, and we still are. I had two great parents who always made sure all my interests had an outlet," she said.
"I liked to explore the world around me. We would go collect mosquito larvae from a puddle and look at them under a microscope. That was back when you had encyclopedias and you actually had to use books to look things up. We would go on nature hikes and just explore a lot."
That thirst for learning new things and venturing to different places continues today.
"I like to say my hobby is vacationing because I'm always planning a vacation," she said. "I like having new experiences with my family. That's probably the thing I put the most effort into outside of work."
After medical school, Dr. Brandenstein completed her residency at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although she always knew she wanted to be a doctor, a career as an OB/GYN was not her first choice.
"It was the one thing I said I wasn't going to do ever when I joined medical school. I had decided I was not going to do that one because of the crazy hours. I was going to be an ER physician and do shift work," she said.
"But then I did my OB/GYN rotation and after that, I just knew there was nothing else I could do. You get to know your patients. You get to have continuity in your care with your patients. It's the perfect balance of medicine and surgery, and if I'm going to get called into the hospital in the middle of the night, I'd much rather deliver a baby than take out somebody's appendix. It just seemed like the perfect thing."
When it came time to start her career in earnest, Dr. Brandenstein found a home in Richmond.
"It's not too far from where I was born. Coming to Reid, it was pretty close to Indianapolis. I had a brother who lived there who is also my kids' godfather. It seemed like it was just in a good spot," she said. "Then I interviewed here, and I loved all the people.
"I think Richmond is perfect for me. I love my job. I love my house. I love my neighborhood. I love my church. I love my kids' school. I could go anywhere in the country and not have all those things in one place, but I do here."
Her colleagues say Dr. Brandenstein has a unique ability to connect with her patients.
"When I think about what a doctor should be, she exemplifies it to a T," said Sunny Thompson, MA. "She puts her patients first. She's very caring, understanding, non-judgmental, a religious woman, and she leads by example. She's just a great doctor and person. Our patients are willing to wait for her if they have to because they want to see her. They know she's in the top tier of doctors."
"She really sits down and takes the time to listen," said Chasity Miller, RN. "She doesn't care how many patients are lined up. She still takes her time with each one of them. They know she's not going to rush in and rush out just because she's busy. She's going to sit down and listen to everything they have to say.
"I tell you this whole community loves Dr. Brandenstein."
As a member of the Lighthouse Assembly of God in Richmond, Dr. Brandenstein says faith is an important part of her life.
"It's the driving force behind everything I do. It gives me strength as I go through difficult days. It gives me hope in helping people through difficult situations," she said. "My faith helps me to have confidence in knowing I'm never alone and God is on my side and he's with me and helping me. My faith and my relationship with God are what gives me that deep care for people and wanting to help them."
When she's not working, Dr. Brandenstein enjoys being a mom to her kids -- Jacob and Grace.
"My daughter likes to explore just like I did. She finds a dead bee and she wants to look at a wing under the microscope, so we do it. That's normal around here," she said. "My son and I breed butterflies together. Right now, he's got some queen ants who have eggs, and he wants to start an ant farm.
"I just want them to know whatever they choose to do in life -- whatever their interest is, whatever their passion is -- I'm going to be behind them 100 percent, and I'm going to be supporting them, promoting them, and helping them. I really strive to do for them what my mom did for me."
A teacher for 39 years, Dr. Brandenstein's mother, LaVerne Barlow, now lives with her daughter and grandkids, helping around the house and making it easier for her daughter to manage the demands of work and motherhood.
"She is my secret weapon. None of this would be possible without my mother. She's like Mary Poppins. With just a spoonful of sugar, she makes everything OK," Dr. Brandenstein said.
"Nobody will ever truly know and understand all the things she does. That's just the magic of her. If I ever accomplished anything in my life, it's because I had her help, or she was behind me supporting me."
"I'm so humbled and honored and just surprised at being chosen for this award. I've always looked up to a lot of the physicians who have won it in the past. I've admired them and their commitment to the community. I've really strived for that, to be fully invested in Richmond." -- Dr. Erika Brandenstein, 2023 Paul S. Rhoads Humanity in Medicine Award recipient
Becoming the medical director of The NEST has "completely transformed my experience and my career," Dr. Brandenstein said.
"You can't always see a person's personality when they're suffering from addiction. That's one of my favorite things, when a patient gets sober and you learn who they really are. It's amazing for me.
"Just being able to see a woman who's trapped in addiction, sometimes homeless, very unstable living conditions, no finances, their life is literally a complete mess, to see that person walk through the door, get help, have their baby, they're working in society, they have homes, they're parenting their children now, and they're being the woman they want to be. For me, that's been especially rewarding and wonderful to see. Just to be a small part of something so amazing is special to me."
And it's that compassion for others that makes Dr. Brandenstein the person she is, according to those closest to her.
"She really has her priorities -- her church, her family, her patients, and her community, all in that order," said family friend Donna Spears. "Erika works really, really hard because she loves what she's doing. I can remember her mom telling me this was not a job; this was a calling.
"We all have 24 hours in a day, and how we use it and how we prioritize it is personal to us. I don't know anybody who has their personal priorities as straight as Erika does."