by Allison Howard
This piece was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of the Tarrant County Physician. You can read find the full magazine here.
When Dr. Shanna Marie Combs was a little girl, she knew when she grew up that she wanted to be a doctor and a ballerina. Not a doctor or a ballerina – she wanted to dance and practice medicine. So that’s what she did.
The combination might seem odd, but when the OB/Gyn, who is a self-declared science nerd, ended up seeing multiple orthopedic surgeons throughout her childhood to manage dance-related ankle complications, the interest came organically.
“I was seeing orthopedic surgeons at the age of 12,” Dr. Combs says. “They all wanted to operate on me, and I would push back and be like, ‘No, I need another option.’” She laughs as she remembers her juvenile determination. “It came to the point I would have orthopedic surgeons print out journal articles for me.”
While her interest in medicine only grew as she did, Dr. Combs realized that she should pursue dance first if she wanted a real shot at both of her passions. After all, professional dancers have limited careers, and Dr. Combs was facing an even bigger challenge with her stressed ankle.
“I used to joke that medicine was my backup career for ballet,” Dr. Combs says with a grin.
She pursued a Bachelor of Fine Arts in ballet at TCU while taking all the necessary prerequisites to apply for medical school. Even though she wasn’t ready to take that step, she wanted to be prepared. It was a hectic time – she always took the maximum number of hours and had to take her science classes in whatever order they were available to work them around her dance classes.
After graduating, Dr. Combs joined the Ballet Theater of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she had danced in high school. While there her life revolved around ballet – she performed, worked with students, and even managed the studio’s front desk.
Dancing was fulfilling, and Dr. Combs looks back on that time fondly. She created a special bond with her “ballet ladies,” one that holds strong these many years later. Still, the time had its challenges. Money was tight, and she ended up taking another job as a physics lab tech at a community college.
Dr. Combs was also physically feeling the impact of constantly dancing, so after a couple of years of performing professionally she decided it was time to move on to medical school. It was at that point that she hit a snag in the plan; she didn’t get accepted to the places where she had applied.
“I kind of had to have a real heart-to-heart with myself as to whether or not I actually wanted to do this again,” Dr. Combs says. “But ultimately, I was like, ‘No! You want to be a doctor.’ So I retook my MCATs and applied broadly and got in.”
She attended medical school at the University of New Mexico. Based on her childhood, she had thought she might go into orthopedics or perhaps pediatrics, but when she began her third-year rotations, she found she was drawn to obstetrics and gynecology. No one was more surprised than she was.
“I said I would never do OB/Gyn as a first-year med student, and here I am, as an OB/Gyn,” Dr. Combs says. “I did not understand the scope of what an OB/Gyn does, and probably my first day on the rotation I was like, ‘Oh, I kind of like this.’ So I fell in love with the field.”
It has been her passion ever since. She completed medical school in 2008 and began her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at JPS. She finished the program in 2012 and then began working for JPS Health Network in private practice as well as in education for the residency program.
Her love for teaching and education led to her involvement in the curriculum development of the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine, and she ultimately became the OB/Gyn clerkship director at the new medical school. Though Dr. Combs recently left that position, she is continuing to work with students; it’s one of her favorite roles as a physician, to prepare the next generation of doctors.
“When you work with students, I always say you can learn what to do and what not to do, and I always wanted to be somebody where they hopefully learned what to do in working with me,” Dr. Combs says. “I’d always loved teaching, so once I discovered that, oh, I can teach in medicine too, I kind of continued that in residency working with medical students and residents who were below me as I moved up and ultimately into education and working with students.”
In spite of her focus on education, Dr. Combs has maintained an active private practice. Last year she transitioned to Cook Children’s Physician Network, which has been an amazing opportunity to marry her love of pediatrics and OB/Gyn, two fields of medicine that rarely intersect.
“A lot of gynecologists won’t see kids younger than 16 or 18,” Dr. Combs explains. “There was definitely a need; it’s totally blown up. And I love it. I can’t tell you how many times women have brought their daughters and been like, ‘We’re so glad you are here.’”
“[Dr. Combs] has taken on the awesome task of advocating for female teen and young girls’ health,” says Dr. Hannah Smitherman, a pediatric emergency medicine physician who is one of her colleagues at Cook Children’s. “It’s a niche that many shy away from . . . Teens are struggling with the stressors of a rapidly changing and conflicted world. Dr. Combs is there to help support these children, soon to be adults, through their often very personal medical issues.”
Currently she sees any patient between the ages of 0–22 that needs gynecological care, but the bulk of her practice is made up of teenagers. “I love taking care of my little ladies,” Dr. Combs says. “I try to provide a very safe place.”
Recently, after displaying quite a bit of anxiety during her appointment, one of her young teenage patients came out to Dr. Combs as lesbian when they talked privately. It was something she had been afraid to tell anyone.
“As they were leaving, the patient kind of hangs back a little bit and she’s standing next to me,” Dr. Combs says. “And I’m like, ‘What’s up?’” Her voice is hushed as she reenacts the moment.
“And she said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ My heart just broke. I just got the impression that she felt heard and supported . . . Stuff like that – it’s the best part of the job.”
Dr. Combs says there is one simple answer when it comes to organized medicine: “Do it!”
“As a medical student, I got involved in the New Mexico Medical Society and the AMA as well, and I remember talking with colleagues and fellow students,” Dr. Combs says. “They were like, ‘Ugh! I don’t want to deal with that stuff.’”
While she understands the hesitation physicians might feel, especially those just beginning their careers, she believes that it is critical for them to be involved in anything that impacts medicine.
“Am I a businessperson or a politician? Absolutely not,” Dr. Combs says. “Would I rather just practice medicine? Absolutely! But all those outside influences affect how I can practice medicine, so I’ve always wanted a seat at the table to kind of influence those decisions and choices.”
And if you feel underrepresented by an organization, Dr. Combs believes that is all the more reason to get involved.
“You can stand on the outside and throw stones and say, ‘They don’t speak for me,’ or you can say, ‘They don’t speak for me; I need to join that organization.’ Because the only way it’s going to change is if more membership gets involved.”
Dr. Combs tries to encourage medical students to participate just as some of her mentors encouraged her. One of those mentors, Dr. G. Sealy Massingill, who is an OB/Gyn practicing in Fort Worth, interviewed Dr. Combs when she applied for a JPS residency spot, and when she joined the program, he suggested that she participate with TMA and TCMS.
“I encouraged her to seek out opportunities in the community and feel grateful she chose to become involved,” Dr. Massingill says. “Her commitment to equity, diversity, and access to care have been drivers for her.”
Several years ago, Dr. Combs participated in TMA’s Leadership College. Since then, she has served on the TCMS Women in Medicine Committee and Publications Committee, and on the state level, the Membership Committee and Maternal Health Congress, as well as one of the AMA alternate delegates.
Now, she is ready to lead TCMS as she begins her term as the 2022 president. Dr. Demequa Moore, who is also an OB/Gyn taking care of patients in Fort Worth, says one of Dr. Combs’ greatest strengths is that she is driven by her deep care for others. “[She] has always practiced with empathy and compassion,” Dr. Moore says. “She continues to seek opportunities to learn and improve the health of her community.”
As Dr. Combs looks back over her career, a physician of particular influence comes to mind: the late Dr. Tracy Kobs. Dr. Kobs worked with JPS residents in the operating room when Dr. Combs was in the program, and she strives to emulate him as both a physician and educator.
“The more I learned about him over time, the more I respected him,” Dr. Combs says. “Operating, you want to get in, you want to do the job correctly, and you want to get out. And so when you’re working with learners you have to be very patient because they’re learning, and he never got frustrated or upset when things were taking too long or anything like that. He was always so patient . . . with the breaking down of steps. And even working with students now, teaching them how to do just basic knot tying and suturing, a lot of the mechanics I learned from him I bring to teaching with students.”
She is grateful for the cheerleaders she has had along the way, and her parents have been chief among them. They supported her at every step she took and challenge she faced.
At one particularly memorable moment, the family was driving back to Texas from Colorado when Dr. Combs found out she had passed her board exams. Her mother insisted that they had to celebrate immediately, so they pulled the car over so they could dance for joy.
“I love my parents,” she says, a big smile crossing her face. “I have to say, I’m very blessed.”
When she isn’t busy teaching, seeing patients, or attending meetings, Dr. Combs enjoys traveling with friends and family or spending time with her dogs, Duke and Poppy, and her partner, Mike Bernas.
While she has enjoyed her varied career and life experiences thus far, Dr. Combs looks to the future with anticipation because she sees it centered around her work as a physician, something that over the years, she has realized is more than just a passion.
“At the end of the day, I call it a calling,” Dr. Combs says. “You know, you hear people talk about their calling to ministry and things like that, but to be a physician has always been what’s at the center of me.”