This day was not a typical day for Ceylon Rowland. The day before was.
Rowland was on call trolling the corridors of the Gwinnett Medical Center’s women’s pavilion, taking care of mothers about to deliver, ushering babies into the world.
At 43, she enjoys the privilege of living out her little girl dreams, born while hearing stories of other babies making their debut under the watchful eye of her grandmother in rural Georgia.
Now, decades after she first imagined herself birthing babies, Rowland isn’t just a doctor, she is the medical director of Gwinnett Medical Center’s Obstetrics & Gynecology Clinic and the Gwinnett Physicians Group OB/GYN office, a first for an African-American at GMC.
Her journey reflects not just how important dreams are but how important family is to forging a strong sense of self and community.
That community is reflected in the lives and faces of every woman who enters her clinic, women who aren’t much different from those grandmother cared for —- the least well off, who often have the most health care needs and the least access to health care because they either can’t afford it or don’t have health insurance or both.
“They may have been laid off or, because of the economy, can’t afford health insurance or their jobs don’t offer it,” Rowland said.
A typical day for Rowland begins at 7 a.m. and ends 12 hours later at 7 p.m.
“I always say you gotta love this stuff, otherwise it’s hard work,” said Rowland.
For as long as she can remember, Rowland has loved this stuff. The patients. The long shifts. Being in charge of a staff of more than 20, including five doctors, nine midwives and a nurse practitioner.
All of it is the culmination of a dream that began when she was a little girl growing up in Macon, where her grandmother Mary Bell Hart Dixon, a lay midwife, was widely admired for taking care of an entire community.
She not only delivered babies of the human kind, Rowland said, Dixon also delivered animal offspring. Nor was it unusual for her to take in, feed and clothe any number of them.
“It was amazing how well she took care of people with so little,” Rowland said of her grandmother. “I always wanted to do it.”
More than anything, Rowland admired her grandmother’s servant spirit.
So when she graduated from high school in 1982, Rowland headed to Northwestern University, where she turned down a full scholarship from the Medill School of Journalism and majored instead in biomedical engineering.
In 1986, she got a Bachelor of Science degree from Northwestern and after doing clinical research at Georgia State University for two years was accepted into Morehouse School of Medicine.
She graduated from medical school in 1992, completed an internship at Wayne State University and residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the Hutzel Women’s Hospital at Detroit Medical Center.
She moved to North Carolina in 1997 and joined a private practice, where she remained until 2003.
She might still be there had 9/11 not happened.
Rowland said that was the day she looked around and asked herself, “What am I doing here?”
With the exception of her mother, who died in 1986, all her family lived in Georgia.
“I wanted to be close to my family,” said Rowland.
Two years later, the Gwinnett Medical Center posted a job opening in its OB/GYN department and Rowland applied.
“I interviewed, and I liked the mission,” she said of the hospital.
Rowland also liked that the hospital took care of high-risk obstetric patients; that the majority of patients at the medical center are immigrants and minority women, many of whom are black women, who are more than twice as likely as white women to get late or no prenatal care.
This was her chance to not just dream but to step into the stories she’d heard about her grandmother; to become the voice of women who had none.
Rowland wouldn’t just be a doctor; she intended to be an advocate.
According to Janet Schwalbe, vice president of physician services, Rowland and her team delivered more than 1,360 babies last year, born to mostly poor women ages 20 to 34 who are uninsured.
Caring for this population, Rowland said, is what attracted her to Gwinnett Medical Center.
“I’ve always followed my gut,” said Rowland. “I felt as though I was supposed to be here.”
Schwalbe said that when she interviewed Rowland for a staff position three years ago the Macon native easily won her over.
Schwalbe said Rowland expressed an interest in getting to know her patients and said she considers it an honor when a patient chooses her to be their doctor.
“When you’re part of that life experience of birthing a baby, that’s important,” said Schwalbe, “because it is an honor.”
Schwalbe also sensed that Rowland possessed a gentle strength and the ability to stay calm in life and death situations.
Schwalbe chose Rowland over two other candidates. When the clinic director left in May 2007, Rowland’s peers, Schwalbe said, chose her to become top doctor in the department, the first African-American to hold the position.
Lisa Cauthen, director of operations for GHS Physician Group LLC, called Rowland the ultimate patient advocate.
“She is in it for the patient,” she said. “Whatever she does she tries to make sure it’s right for the patient and with that comes solid medical practices.”
It is the only way Rowland knows how to operate. When people ask what she does, she isn’t likely to tell them she is an OB/GYN.
“I tell them I’m an advocate,” she said. “Medicine is more than taking care of patients’ medical needs. It’s taking care of their whole being.”