When Shelba Bethel was on call as a young physician in 1970 she had to stay at home. Although not officially on duty, if a patient or colleague needed her the land line telephone or in-person message were the only methods of contact.
“Next came pagers and then of course cell phones now have changed all that,” Bethel said.
The trim and energetic physician is still taking patient calls and practicing gynecology fifty years later. Bethel shares a northwest Norman office in an obstetrics and gynecology practice with her daughter Lesa Mulligan M.D. They are the only mother-daughter ob/gyn partnership in the state of Oklahoma. Bethel has seen some things change and some stay the same since 1970.
“I never thought I’d practice that long,” Bethel said. “I always thought retirement would come earlier. But I still enjoy what I do and can’t see any point in not practicing anymore. So I’ve just kept working.”
Although she delivered over 14,000 babies earlier in her career, Bethel now leaves that often physically challenging facet of the practice to her daughter.
“When I came to Norman there were only two ob/gyn physicians here,” she said. “Myself and Dr. Crittenden. The general practitioners didn’t particularly like us here because they were all still delivering babies.”
Bethel found that she was prevented from doing some standard obstetrical procedures such as dilation and curettage at the hospital unless two general practitioners signed-off that it was OK.
“That was my first real shock about being in Norman,” she said.
During the first ten years in practice Bethel did her own obstetrical anesthesia. She was prepared for that from practicing at the large St. Anthony’s Hospital in Oklahoma City.
“Often there was no assistant when I went to surgery,” she said. “You were just there by yourself.”
Introduction of fetal monitoring technology was a welcome advancement in her field.
“It really changed the way we practiced medicine in labor,” Bethel said. “I think Norman had the first one in the metro. Even before the big hospitals in the city.”
Bethel detailed other new-at-the time technologies such as ultrasound, laparoscopy and cryotherapy as being big positive steps.
“We did tubals (ligations) vaginally,” she said. “Every once in awhile you’d be doing a tubal and the appendix would fall out. Laparoscopy helped with looking inside first without making an incision. The last thing that changed so much was robotics. We could do robotic hysterectomies with just a few little incisions.”
Bethel is also celebrating 65 years of marriage to her husband Lander Bethel in 2020. Back in the day Lander worked in the city. Occasionally he was called on to stop on his way home to pick up a dose of radium for use on one of his wife’s patients.
“Then after we used the radium he’d take it back to the city,” Bethel said with a laugh. “They wouldn’t do anything like that anymore. There were a lot of things that it was the best we could do.”
Bethel was asked to rate the general health of Oklahoma women in 2020.
“I think one of the biggest problems is obesity,” she said. “Otherwise I think women are pretty healthy. The majority have good nutrition, good medical and dental care. Unfortunately many don’t have that and are not covered by health insurance.”
Bethel still enjoys the challenges of her profession while balancing it with an active personal life. She lives in exurban Norman.
“I get up early and have two little calves I’m bottle feeding,” she said. “There’s three horses to take care of and the garden. Then I go to the office. It’s so much more relaxing because I quit doing obstetrics and surgery. What I do now is just office gynecology, hormone therapy with implants for men and women. We also do medical marijuana licenses.”
Bethel and daughter Lesa Mulligan M.D. have been in practice together for 24 years.
“It has been a great experience,” Bethel said. “I have four children but just one is a girl and the only to go into medicine. Just being able to see her every day at the office is so nice. I just can’t imagine not being able to see her all the time. It is such a rewarding experience for me. I have cherished the time we’ve got to spend together.”
When Bethel first came to Norman, development west of I-35 had just begun.
“I think there was still a dairy on Main Street and a house that backed up to ours with tractors, geese and ducks,” she said. “There were few chain stores. Drug stores were mostly independently-owned. Groceries were mom and pop. It was still almost like a country town.”
Patients don’t ask Bethel the same kinds of questions they did 50 years ago.
“Women are a lot more informed now because of the internet,” she said. “Sometimes though they come in scared to death because they looked up something on the internet. They just know they have cancer or something really bad. They look up too much sometimes.”
While on a 2014 ski trip to Colorado Bethel collided with a snowboarder nearly breaking her neck. The injury required her entire spine to be fused. Happily her recovery has been excellent.
“I get up every morning at 5 a.m. to ride my stationary bike five miles,” she said. “I do that to keep my legs strong. I can’t bend over so if I drop my car keys I have to squat down to pick them up without holding on to anything. I have been very pleased with my recovery because I’m very functional, although I do some things differently.”
Bethel contemplates what medical practice will be like 50 years from now.
“It will probably be technology that changes the most,” she said.