On a late September morning, Dr. Linda Mathison-Ezieme saw several women for annual gynecological examinations, discussed infertility issues with a patient, had a follow-up visit with a woman who underwent a procedure to address heavy menstrual flow, and on another performed a colposcopy — an examination of the cervical area with a microscope, done in the event of an unusual Pap smear.
That afternoon, she would see several more patients for annual OB-GYN exams and do a surgical consultation with a woman about the possibility of a hysterectomy. All in all, a fairly standard day at the Outer Banks Center for Women, the clinic that’s become a fixture in the island’s medical landscape in the past generation.
“I know there’s a need here and we fill that need for patients,” says Mathison-Ezieme, a 47-year-old OB-GYN specialist who has been with the practice for 12 years.
The center is located on the east side of Route 158, across the highway from the Outer Banks Hospital and the Outer Banks Mall. It sits in the middle of three cottage-style beach buildings, with the hospital’s Urgent Care facility on one side and a child daycare center on the other. The 3,600-square-foot office is in the building with white, billboard-sized letters that read “OB GYN” near the roofline, though the building also houses Beach Medical Care, Bluewater Ear Nose and Throat, and an attorney’s office.
The Outer Banks Center is affiliated with the Virginia Center for Women in Chesapeake and is staffed Monday through Friday by a rotating group of doctors and nurse practitioners. The staff includes three doctors, two nurse practitioners, a medical assistant, an ultrasound technician on site one day a week, and a receptionist. All but one of the staffers is female.
“A lot of women want to be seen by women,” Mathison-Ezieme says, particularly when it comes to OB-GYN concerns.
The center was essentially begun by obstetricians and gynecologists Jeff Hammer and Derwin Gray. Hammer started at the Chesapeake office in 1989 and shortly thereafter began making periodic trips to the Outer Banks with other physicians. At the time, there were no local OB-GYNs, and women had to travel as much as four or five hours to Hampton Roads for exams and treatments.
“You could barely find a drug store there in the ‘80s, and the hospital hadn’t been built yet, so there was definitely a need for something dedicated to women’s health,” says Hammer, a Currituck resident who began vacationing on the Outer Banks in 1976 and was drawn to the area, personally and professionally, before retiring recently.
During the next decade, the visits expanded from a half-day every two weeks to a half-day per week to a full day per week at various locations. By 2001, Hammer, Gray and local physician Timothy Kling wanted to establish a full-time presence, and the Outer Banks Center moved into its present space as the hospital was being completed across the highway.
The center caters to young and old, providing services in prenatal care, wellness exams, weight loss, gynecological issues, infertility, lactation, menopausal and post-menopausal conditions. The center’s doctors no longer deliver babies locally, nor do they perform surgical procedures here. Patients must travel to Chesapeake or elsewhere in Hampton Roads for those procedures. For some, that’s a hindrance, for others a feature.
“It’s options,” says Tracy Papp, a nurse practitioner. “It’s about giving patients options.”
Papp, 53, is a Chesapeake native and Moyock resident who works the Outer Banks Center two days a week and is at the Virginia Center the other three. She has been a nurse practitioner since 2004 and with this practice for the past five years.
“I consider it a privilege to do the job I do,” Papp says. “I am so blessed to do what I do. I get to help people, other women especially.”
Stacey Starsman, the other nurse practitioner on staff, is a Kitty Hawk resident who works 2-3 days a week at the center. The three doctors — Gray, Mathison-Ezieme and Lenny Laureta — are based out of the Chesapeake center and rotate here generally one day a week, which means they’re here one or two days per month.
The center’s days are usually fully booked, with mostly residents, a smattering of visitors, even Coast Guardsmen stationed at the post at Oregon Inlet.
There’s no dropoff in care, despite the fact that a doctor is present only one day per week. Nurse practitioners, unlike registered nurses, can diagnose patients, schedule tests and prescribe drugs. Though they cannot perform surgeries, they can consult with doctors and surgeons and steer patients to hospitals and procedures.
The center is also working to expand its services and reach. Starsman is a certified lactation consultant who has a support group for new and breastfeeding mothers. Papp, who also does missionary work in Haiti, is working toward becoming a certified post-partum depression therapist.
On the other end of the spectrum, post-menopausal women who experience dyspareunia, or painful sexual intercourse as estrogen levels decline, have access to a relatively new, simple targeted laser treatment known as MonaLisa Touch. The equipment is located at the Chesapeake office, but women are more than willing to travel for treatment, Mathison-Ezieme and Papp says, as it benefits them and their partners. It’s all about making women’s lives better and healthier.
“I want people to know that this is a warm place to come,” Papp says. “That it is our goal that an appointment with us is like meeting with girlfriends, who can give you help, who care about what’s going on with you.”