BREWTON — According to Dr. Seuss in I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.” That’s a philosophy Brewton pediatrician Marsha Raulerson can easily get behind.
For more than 30 years, Dr. Raulerson has celebrated her young patients and encouraged their sense of adventure through reading by providing them with new books during their visits to her clinic. What began as the STARS program, or Steps to Achieve Reading Success, has for the past 20 years been affiliated with the National Reach Out and Read Program. Ten years ago, Dr. Raulerson, working with Polly McClure, launched the Alabama Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics’ Reach Out and Read Alabama, that gives young children a foundation for success by incorporating books into pediatric care and encouraging families to read aloud together.
“We’ve given out truckloads of books to our patients,” Dr. Raulerson said. “I give a book to every child for every visit, no matter what the age of the child. My community probably contributes about $10,000 a year so we can buy new books because every patient can have a new book.”
In fact, no child who visits Dr. Raulerson’s clinic leaves empty handed. The books she chooses for her patients are not only age appropriate, but also story appropriate to each patient’s particular situation. The majority of her patients have special needs, and each book is intended to give her patients hope.
“I was a reading specialist before I went to medical school, and I would give books to my patients when I was a resident at the University of Florida. I’ve been giving books away since 1978, so my whole career, really. My feeling is that if you can read, you can do anything. I tell my patients that I majored in English in college, not science or math. But, when I went to medical school and had to take biology and chemistry, I could never have done that without the ability to read. If you can read, you can do anything you want!”
Dr. Raulerson laughed when she first realized how long she had been practicing in Brewton, and how many patients had come through her clinic. She shook her head and smiled an easy smile when she admitted that it didn’t initially dawn on her just how many generations of patients she had treated.
“I have grand-patients!” she laughed! “I have a lot of families of three generations of patients, and I remember them all. All my patients are so special to me, and they’ve all received so many books from the clinic. Now, when they tell me that those books helped to create a special bond with their children and grandchildren, that’s heartwarming.”
Given her years of advocacy for children, it’s difficult to imagine the landscape of medicine in Alabama without Dr. Raulerson, but she in fact very nearly did not get accepted into medical school. A native of Jacksonville, Fla., she took her qualifying exams for her doctorate when she ultimately settled on medical school. While she said she felt she was always meant to be a medical doctor, one person sealed the deal for her. Her name was Robbie.
Dr. Raulerson taught school to help put her husband through medical school, and then her husband was drafted and sent to Vietnam. While there, the Raulersons decided to adopt a Vietnamese child. When her husband found the youngest female child in the nursery of an orphanage, he knew this was their child. She was only a few weeks old. The Catholic priest agreed to the adoption to the Baptist couple, and Dr. Raulerson flew to Tokyo to meet her daughter, Robbie.
When Dr. Raulerson got home with Robbie, she was 5 months old and weighed only 8 lbs., was malnourished and very ill. She knew exactly what to do to take care of her daughter, but if any doubt was left as to whether she could be a physician, she wouldn’t doubt much longer. Dr. Raulerson said when she began applying to medical school, she knew the odds would not be in her favor. It was a time when there were not many women in the medical field, and she had a family. Every school she applied to turned her down, except one.
“I was accepted at Emory because of Robbie. They had a different way of interviewing at Emory. They would interview three applicants sitting at a long table. Each applicant was asked what was an event in your life that was really important. There was a football player at the end of the table that talked about being a quarterback. The other girl at the table talked about being homecoming queen. Then they asked me,” Dr. Raulerson paused. The story hanging in her throat fighting to get free. “I told them about when I saw my daughter for the first time. And, I got a telegram that night admitting me to Emory.”
Ironically, Dr. Raulerson transferred to one of the schools that initially rejected her application. Dr. Raulerson’s husband was already a standout fellow at the University of Florida, and his department petitioned the admissions committee to consider an applicant from Emory. She still laughs when she tells the story of being admitted to a school that initially rejected her because she had a family.
Many in Alabama haven’t had the pleasure of meeting this woman who loves to laugh and read to her patients. But after her work with the #IAmMedicaid social media campaign this spring, more people in the state definitely know her name. She estimates between 70 and 80 percent of her patients are Alabama Medicaid recipients, and many of the children in the campaign are her patients. In the end, BP oil money was partially used to reinstate the physician cut that was implemented on Aug. 1 and to shore up the embattled Medicaid budget. Still, according to Dr. Raulerson, it won’t be enough.
“That campaign had to work. It had no choice BUT to work,” she said. “Many of my patients’ families can’t pay their bills. We don’t have enough doctors now, so what happens when we can’t fund the ones who choose to stay? The system is broken.”
During the Regular and Special Legislative Sessions, Dr. Raulerson’s editorials about the importance of fully funding Alabama Medicaid appeared in many of the state’s newspapers. Although the Alabama Legislature is not in session today, there is still work that can, and should, be done, according to Dr. Raulerson.
Perhaps it’s because of her and her husband’s early struggles with starting their own family, or seeing so many of their patients live below the poverty level in Escambia County. Either way, as long as Dr. Raulerson can string together her outspoken words, the children of Alabama will always have another advocate.
“I’m doing a lot more writing now,” she explained. “I feel like I have to. An article I wrote in 1997 about the importance of fully funding Medicaid is just as important today as it was 20 years ago. Nothing has really changed in all that time other than the number of our patients on Medicaid. Something has to change. We have to change. We have to choose to support our kids.”
Dr. Raulerson is a past president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, the Alabama Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics, and VOICES for Alabama’s Children. She is a board member of The Children’s First Foundation.