Deborah Gilboa: From Stage Manager to Doctor

I absolutely love meeting new folks via social media and when Deborah Gilboa (@AskDocG) crossed my Twitter stream, I wanted to find out more about her.  After we hung up our phone chat, I sat back in awe.  If there was ever a real-life Superwoman, I have found her.  I’m convinced of it.  Family doctor.  Speaker.  Author.  Mom of four boys.  Fluent in American Sign Language. Mompreneur.

Oh, and she can barefoot water ski.

This ambitious, full-of-energy gal started out with the dream of being a stage manager.  She graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in Fine Arts.  A six-week stint at the Deaf West theater introduced her to Deaf Culture and American Sign Language.   During breaks from the production of  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the conversation among the deaf cast members highlighted the difficulties of communicating with the medical profession.  Deborah tucked that little tidbit in her mind and traveled to her next theater production.

“Everywhere I traveled, I sought out deaf people and gave them tickets to the plays,” said Deborah. “In exchange, they would teach me sign language.”

Deborah snagged the best job in theater: stage management for The Second City.  “The person I replaced was there for thirty years and retired,” she said. “I worked there for a while and really enjoyed it.”

But she yearned for something more. She wanted that one-on-one contact and wanted to be involved with the world in a different way.  Her heart started pulling her in the direction of medical school.  But was she ready to give up a great job, benefits and a steady income to take on debt and years of study?

“The turning point for me was volunteering as an EMT,” said Deborah.  “I loved interacting with people. I loved driving the ambulance and helping patients. I began to realize that I was looking forward to my volunteer work more than my stage job.”   It wasn’t an easy road starting all over again.  Deborah had to go back as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh. While pursuing her degree in science, she tacked on American Sign Language classes and added an interpreting track. Within two years, her teacher, Karen Walkney Mrdjenovich encouraged her to test for interpreter certification.  Deborah passed the certification and began working sixty hours a week as an interpreter while applying for medical school.

The hours reduced to fifteen per week once she settled into her medical classes.  Deborah was frequently assigned to interpret in medical situations.  It was the perfect blend of her skills and interests.

Residency proved to be challenging.  By that time, Deborah met and married an ER physician and they had their first baby.  “We were living far from family and I was working 110 hours a week,” she said. “My husband was a medical student working 60 hours a week.  It was very hard to focus on my job and being away from my baby that much.”

Today, Deborah works two days a week as a family physician and because of her fluency in ASL, she has over 100 deaf families in her practice.  Over the years, she began to counsel parents with various parenting issues that would come up during visits.  Many of her lessons also came from rearing four boys who are now 9, 7, 5 and 3.  She started sharing those lessons and soon found herself in demand as a speaker, discussing parenting and health challenges.

“Most of what I’ve learned comes from hundreds of families I’ve worked with,  not because I know more as a parent, but from working with families,” she said.

Sometimes it takes a little trust and sleuthing before she can offer solutions to parents.  One five-year-old patient kept ending up in the emergency room due to asthma attacks.  Deborah was puzzled as to why the attacks weren’t prevented with the medicine she had prescribed.  The mom finally confessed that she was having trouble getting her daughter to take the medicine.  “She’s five– that’s not up to her!” Deborah explained.  “I gave the mom some tools to work with– she could have her daughter choose the time of day to take the medicine or where in the house she wanted to take it. The mom gave her a special bottle of juice afterwards as a treat, and she could only have that with the medicine.”  As it turned out, the little girl didn’t want to take the medicine in front of her brother, so by having some control over it, the battles stopped.  So did the ER visits.

Deborah’s most valuable parenting tip is this:   when you you’re in the middle of a parenting struggle, whatever it is,  don’t think about what next week is going to be like–  think of the lesson lesson you want to teach to shape your child when they grow up.  Not next week’s results.   “For example, if you’re trying to decide if your child should go to a birthday party or  the soccer practice he already committed to, we know  that next week will be easier for you and your son if you chose the birthday party,” said Deborah.  “But, if you want to teach about personal sacrifice and ethics, choose what you committed to.  Find a way to celebrate and honor his friend at a different time.  That lesson will shape them for the rest of their lives.”

Soon, you’ll be able to get Deborah’s parenting expertise in her upcoming book.  Meanwhile, go mosey on over to her website where you can ask your most intimidating parenting question.  Or you can follow her on Twitter.

But you know how I know Deborah really is Superwoman?  Way back when she was thirteen, in one short summer, she learned to walk on water.  And then she went off to show her barefoot water skiing skills in the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski show.

Yup, Superwoman.




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