A Texas Trailblazer – May Owen, MD, a Medical Pioneer and TMA’s First Female President

By Sean Price


Originally published in Texas Medical Association’s December 2021 issue of Texas Medicine. It was republished with TMA’s permission in the March/April 2022 issue of Tarrant County Physician.

On May 27, 1936, May Owen, MD, answered a scientific riddle in a speech before the Texas Medical Association, explaining research that would soon make her a statewide celebrity. 

The name of the paper she read that day, “Peritoneal Response to Glove Powder,” sounded vague to nonexperts. But the other clinical pathologists who gathered to listen understood that Dr. Owen had uncovered that a common medical practice posed a threat to patients.  

The mystery started nearly 16 months earlier when a fellow Fort Worth physician alerted Dr. Owen to the case of a 19-year-old woman with unexplained fibrous membranes and tumorous nodules growing in her abdomen. The woman had had her appendix removed two years previously, and something about that operation had gone wrong.  

After months of research, Dr. Owen proved that the unusual growths plaguing the woman had been caused by the talcum powder used at the time to coat surgical gloves. Human tissue couldn’t absorb the powder, so if just a little bit inadvertently fell into a wound during an operation, it caused infection, scar tissue, and other problems.  

Dr. Owen read her paper before a mostly appreciative audience that gave her a standing ovation, according to her biography, May Owen, MD, by Ted Stafford, which is the source for most of this article. But when most of the crowd sat down, one man remained standing and began to shout. 

“I have been sitting here listening to this woman spout off about the dangers of glove powder,” he said. “I don’t believe a word she has said.” 

He continued ranting until the meeting’s chair ruled him out of order and told him to be quiet. Later that day, Dr. Owen won an award from the Texas Society of Pathologists, just one of many she would earn, including an honorary doctor of science degree from her alma mater, Texas Christian University (TCU). 

The man’s outburst rattled Dr. Owen, reminding her of just how far she had come as a woman in medicine – and how far women like her still had to go to win acceptance. But she never lost confidence in herself or her findings. 

“I knew if I lived to be 100, that [discovery] would be my most important contribution to humanity,” she recalled.  

The research forced surgical glove makers to switch to a starch-based powder the human body could absorb. Texas newspapers clamored to interview this “woman doctor” – partly because her work had caused such an uproar and partly because so few women physicians existed anywhere at the time. 

Dr. Owen’s pioneering work continued in the decades to come, making her the first female president of the Texas Society of Pathologists in 1946, the first female president of the Tarrant County Medical Society in 1947, and the first female president of TMA in 1960. 

She had help from friends and relatives during her difficult rise from poor farm girl to honored Fort Worth physician, and that made her a conscientious mentor to hundreds of young physicians and people interested in medical careers. 

One of them was Margie Peschel, MD, who started her career in Fort Worth as a resident in 1959, when women were still rare in the medical profession. She later became a pathologist who ran what is now Carter BloodCare from 1976 to 1997. 

“I always felt lucky to be in Tarrant County because Dr. Owen set the example that women are welcomed,” she said in an interview with Texas Medicine.  

From farm to medical school 
Dr. Owen was born in 1892 in Falls County, just southeast of Waco, the sixth of eight children. She grew up doing hard work on the family cotton farm, and her parents, Jack and Lilli Owen, allowed her to go to school only after her morning chores were done.  

Dr. Owen’s mother died when she was nine years old, and her father – whom she describes in her biography as autocratic and demanding – became even more so. He put more chores on his daughter and scoffed when she told him she intended to be a doctor.  

“Get that silly idea out of your head right now,” she recounted him saying, according to her biography. “Your place is here on the farm. We will not discuss this matter anymore. Do you understand?” 

Dr. Owen’s father tolerated her finishing school up to seventh grade, but only the intervention – and financial assistance – of an older brother allowed her to go first to high school and then to college at TCU in Fort Worth, graduating in 1917. In 1921, she became the first woman to graduate from what is now the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky. 

Dr. Owen’s father did not actively prevent his daughter’s education, but he also never helped it and never acknowledged her accomplishments. Nor did he answer the many letters she sent after she became a physician.  

“Her father never honored her,” Dr. Peschel told Texas Medicine. “It was sad. We would drive from Fort Worth to Austin for TMA meetings, and she shared things like that – that her daddy never did recognize her.” 

During the 1920s and 1930s, Dr. Owen worked mostly as a pathologist for Terrell’s Laboratories in Fort Worth, and the owner – Truman Terrell, MD – was her friend and mentor. He loaned her the money to attend medical school. She also did advanced study at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Bellevue Hospital in New York.  

Despite her intense training, some fellow physicians – frequently older doctors – still refused to accept her medical opinions. In one case, when a surgeon argued that she was wrong, Dr. Owen found a clever way to win him over. 

“I split the specimen in half and did my examination on one section and reported my findings to the surgeon,” she told her biographer. “The other half was sent to the pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. When his report came back, it agreed precisely with what I had reported. After a while the people who had doubted my ability and competence began to accept my work without question.” 

Dr. Owen also earned the respect of veterinarians early in her career because her rural background gave her an understanding of animals and farming. In 1931, a vet at the Fort Worth Stockyards asked for her help in identifying a mystery disease that was killing sheep. Some suspected anthrax. But Dr. Owen discovered that the molasses cake being fed to the sheep to fatten them up was giving the animals diabetes. This discovery changed the way sheep were raised worldwide. 

Despite what coworkers recount as a crushing work schedule, she remained active in all levels of organized medicine, and she encouraged medical students and young physicians to join organizations like TMA. By the time Dr. Peschel became a pathologist in 1964, Dr. Owen knew just who to talk to to get her colleague assigned to committees in TMA and other medical organizations. 

“She was so active,” Dr. Peschel said. “She introduced me to everybody at TMA and the pathologists in the state. She just knew all these people. She was an excellent mentor.” 

Dr. Owen expressed a deep debt to the people who helped her get a start in medicine. 

“I know I could never have done it alone,” she said in her book. 

As TMA president, Dr. Owen established TMA’s Physicians Benevolent Fund to help physicians in times of distress. She led the charge with a $2,500 contribution of her own, and since 1961, the fund has distributed more than $4.38 million in financial assistance.  

“We all know of cases where our colleagues have suffered illness, death, or other misfortunes,” Dr. Owen said to TMA board members when requesting the fund’s creation.  

She contributed money to students individually and also helped establish the May Owen Irrevocable Trust through TMA to provide low-interest loans to medical students. When Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock opened in 1973, Dr. Owen helped provide the library’s first 20,000 volumes and established the school’s first endowed chair. 

In old age, Dr. Owen continued to work hard until her health failed. She died on April 12, 1988, at age 96.  

“She said, ‘We should all be so lucky to work at something we love until the day we die,’” Dr. Peschel said. “She did that.”

Ask the Docs About Prenatal Oral Health

Don’t Miss Out – be part of the conversation on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, 8:30 am – 9:30 am CT.

In honor of International Adolescent Health Week, Drs. Shanna Combs and Meera Beharry will host an Ask the Docs discussion centered around the unique issues pregnant teens face, and the importance of engaging adolescents in their medical and dental health journey before, during and after pregnancy.

You can register for this free session here.

This event was created for dentists, physicians, dental hygienists, nurses, doulas, mid-wives, and social workers.

The objectives for this Ask the Docs session include:

  • Strategies for supporting and helping pregnant teens and families as they transition from pediatric to adult medical and dental care
  • Providing information on doctor/teen confidential consult, rights of minors, parental consent needs, questions to ask
  • Identifying stigmas as a barrier to care
  • Tips for creating a teen friendly environment

This session is part of a virtual series that addresses common questions about oral health care during pregnancy. This series is presented by the Texas Department of State Health Services – Oral Health Improvement Program (OHIP) in partnership with the Children’s Oral Health Coalition let by Cook Children’s.

How to Use and Store At-Home COVID-19 Tests Properly to Avoid Potential Harm

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is alerting people that there is a potential for harm if  at-home COVID-19 tests are not used according to the manufacturer’s test instructions. Here are their recommendations for safe and effective at-home testing:

Recommendations  

  • Keep all parts of at-home COVID-19 test kits out of reach from children and pets before and after use. 
  • Store the at-home COVID-19 test in its box until you are ready to use it. 
  • Follow the manufacturer’s step by step test instructions exactly.  
    • Read the Warning, Precautions, And Safety Information in the test instructions for a description of chemical ingredients and recommendations for safe handling and what to do if they accidentally touch your skin or eyes. 
    • Keep the liquid solution away from the skin, nose, mouth, and eyes. Do not swallow the liquid solution. 
    • Use only the swab in the test kit to collect a nasal sample. 
  • After you perform the test: 
    • Follow all test instructions for how to throw away the used test parts.   
    • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. 

Get medical help right away by contacting your local poison control or health care provider if:  

  • Skin or eye irritation does not go away after exposure. 
  • A person or animal swallows the liquid solution. 

Avoid Potential Harm from Incorrect Use of At-Home COVID-19 Tests 

At-home COVID-19 diagnostic test kits include different parts such as a test cartridge, nasal swab, and small plastic vials containing liquid solutions needed to perform the test. The liquid solutions may include chemical ingredients, such as sodium azide, that help the test work properly or act as preservatives. The test chemicals can be irritating or toxic if they get on your skin, nose, or eyes or if they are swallowed. 

The FDA has received reports of injuries caused by incorrect use of at-home COVID-19 tests, including: 

  • Injuries caused by people accidently putting liquid test solution in their eyes when small vials of test solution were mistaken for eye drops.   
  • Injuries caused by placing nasal collection swabs into the liquid solution prior to swabbing the nose (the liquid solution is not supposed to touch your body).  
  • Injuries caused by children putting test parts in their mouth and swallowing liquid test solution. 

Texas Launches $23 Million Substance Use Disorder Prevention Campaign

By Joey Berlin

Federal data estimate that during 2020, more than 11 million Texans were living with substance use disorder. A new $23 million public awareness campaign from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) is aiming to keep that number from growing.

The campaign, which HHSC announced in a March 8 release, will focus on “reducing stigma, building community connection and resilience, and changing social norms to prevent substance use.”

HHSC awarded contracts totaling $23.2 million to two entities as part of the campaign:

  • $16.7 million to FleishmanHillard, a public relations and marketing agency, which will focus the campaign on Texas youth, young adults, and families who are most at risk, as well as community leaders who can reach them; and
  • $6.5 million to the Center for Health Communication at The University of Texas at Austin to develop an interactive digital tool to improve the referral process for existing substance use disorder treatment, prevention, and recovery services, and to conduct research to support messaging for the prevention campaign.

HHSC says the campaign aims to reach about 2.5 million Texans. The funds are coming from nearly $253 million HHSC received in federal substance abuse prevention and treatment funds during 2021, including from the American Rescue Plan Act.

This article was originally published by the Texas Medical Association on March 15, 2022.

FDA Approves First Generic of Symbicort for Asthma, COPD

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first generic of Symbicort (budesonide and formoterol fumarate dihydrate) Inhalation Aerosol for the treatment of two common pulmonary health conditions: asthma in patients six years of age and older and the maintenance treatment of airflow obstruction and reducing exacerbations for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“Today’s approval of the first generic for one of the most commonly prescribed complex drug-device combination products to treat asthma and COPD is another step forward in our commitment to bring generic copies of complex drugs to the market, which can improve quality of life and help reduce the cost of treatment,” said Sally Choe, Ph.D., director of the Office of Generic Drugs in the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Asthma impacts 25 million people, more than five million of whom are children, while COPD afflicts more than 16 million, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

The FDA granted approval of this generic budesonide and formoterol fumarate dihydrate inhalation aerosol to Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

You can find the full release from the FDA here.


AMA Toolkit Dissects Federal Surprise Billing Law

By Joey Berlin

Originally published by the Texas Medical Association on March 10, 20202.

Much of the federal government’s solution to resolve certain out-of-network billing disputes without balance billing or otherwise involving patients – known as the No Surprises Act – took effect at the start of 2022.

Among other pieces physicians must familiarize themselves with, the new federal law features an independent dispute resolution (IDR) process that was intended to let physicians and insurers both make their case for fair payment. Naturally, plenty of minutiae and arcana exists within the law, and a portion of the rules for the IDR process is under a legal challenge from the Texas Medical Association and others in organized medicine.

To help physician practices understand and navigate the new law, the American Medical Association has created a toolkit, Preparing for Implementation of the No Surprises Act. The 20-page toolkit includes information on:

  • Operational challenges physicians “will need to address immediately” to be compliant with the law’s new requirements, such as when uninsured and self-pay patients must receive a good-faith estimate of charges before they receive services;
  • What services and care fall under the rules of the No Surprises Act;
  • Timetables and requirements for the IDR process; and
  • When and how facilities and physician practices can obtain a patient’s consent to balance bill for out-of-network care at an in-network facility.

AMA says it will update the toolkit “as additional guidance is available” and will develop new resources on parts of the law not already included in the toolkit.

For additional information on the No Surprises Act, you can check out TMA’s list of resources on the law, which has both similarities and differences to Texas’ IDR law governing state-regulated health plans.

Meanwhile, TMA and others are still pushing to ensure the implementation of the law is fair for physicians seeking to get paid. In late October 2021, TMA filed suit to challenge what physicians and hospitals say is an unfair piece of the IDR process outlined in federal rules. Check future editions of Texas Medicine Today for updates on that lawsuit.

TCU Medical Student Publishes Two Children’s Books

By Prescotte Stokes III

You can find the original article here.

During a short break from medical school during Summer 2021, Sereena Jivraj, a second-year medical student at the TCU School of Medicine, had a burning desire to create something.

She combined her love for science, medicine and children for something special. She made the most of her time by writing two children’s books entitled, “Connor and His Composting Adventures” and “Ella and Her Vaccine Soldiers.”

“I’ve had these ideas in the back of my mind for some time,” Jivraj said. “I’ve spent so much time around children whether that was tutoring or babysitting and I’ve always been reading children’s books for years and it just felt like I’ve been so involved with kids in the past that it would be cool to keep it going in the future.”

Sereena Jivraj, a second-year medical student at the TCU School of Medicine, holds her newly published children’s books entitled “Connor and His Composting Adventures” and “Ella and Her Vaccine Soldiers.”

In “Connor and His Composting Adventures,” Connor learns what the difference is between compost and regular trash. Throughout the course of the story Connor learns what everyday items can be composted and how to prevent trash from ending up in a landfill.

“The point is just to educate kids and even parents on what composting is,” Jivraj said. “A lot of people when you speak to them about it they’ve never heard of it. What I really wanted to do is be able to instill that knowledge from a young age. Hopefully that will make it easier to make changes in our society one day in the future.”

Her second children’s book called  “Ella and Her Vaccine Soldiers” is about young Ella’s visit to her doctor. Ella learns how important vaccines are and how they can turn into “mini soldiers” to help her body fight viruses and diseases.

“With COVID-19 around last few years and previously with flu shots, I can remember everyone being afraid to go to the doctor just because they knew a shot was coming,” Jivraj said. “I want kids’ fears to be diminished so they can have a healthy relationship with their doctors and not fear them because you’re really brave when you get these vaccinations. I don’t want this fear of vaccines to prevent you getting the help that you need.”

Writing the books was a process that helped Jivraj tackle some of her own issues with long form writing. She reached out to the medical school’s Compassionate Practice® team after she did some volunteer work gathering donations for homeless individuals in Fort Worth and felt compelled to pen a poem about her experience.

“I used it as a way to get out my emotions and help me decompress,” Jivraj said. “I went to the Compassionate Practice® team and that kind of gave me the confidence to do this because I always felt like writing was my weakness.”

She also talked to Samir Nangia, M.D., a Physician Development Coach at the medical school, about the idea of penning the children’s books. During their chats, Dr. Naniga said that her urged Jivraj not to put her ideas off and take some time during her break to pursue them.

“In some instances, through coaching we can help students become more efficient with their time management and help them discover what resources they need to make their dreams a reality,” Dr. Nangia said.  “However, in some instances all it takes is that motivation and emotional support.  Both of which were true in Sereena’s case.”

In addition to embracing her creativity, Jivraj said that she chose to author children’s books so the information would be easy to understand and accessible to all people.

“This is a book that you can read to your child in your belly or read to your newborn,” Jivraj said. “Because just exposing them to the vocabulary and to the words it helps create those processes in their brains so when they are exposed to it later on, they are not completely confused about it.”

Both books “Connor and His Composting Adventures” and “Ella and Her Vaccine Soldiers” are available in the Amazon Store as a download or paperback version. They are also available to download on Kindle.

TCMS Gold-Headed Cane Nominations Open for 2022

Physicians, nominations are now open for the 2022 Gold-Headed Cane Award, which is given annually to an outstanding TCMS member who has made a significant impact on our medical community.

To be eligible for the award, a nominee must be a current member of TCMS and have been a TCMS member for at least 15 years. You can find the list of members who are eligible here.

All current TCMS members have the opportunity to nominate one candidate for this award. You can make your nomination or learn more here.

All nominations must be received by April 22, 2022.

Join Walk with a Doc on March 12

Join our local chapter of Walk with a Doc on Saturday, March 12, for a fun morning walking, talking about health, and meeting people in our community. You can find information about the spring dates here.

For more information, call Kate Russell, OMS-II, at 903-316-9392, or email her at KatherineRussell@my.unthsc.edu.

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