By Ben Sherman, Fort SillMarch 28, 2013
FORT SILL, Okla. (March 28, 2013) -- Ralph Heirigs must feel like he's sometimes experiencing déjà vu when he sees some of his patients. And considering he's delivered more than 5,000 babies at Reynolds Army Community Hospital during the past 22 years, he has definitely seen some of them before, because he delivered them.
"I have patients who are now adults at Fort Sill that I delivered some 20 years ago, and now many of them are having babies of their own," said Heirigs, an obstetrics and gynecology physician at RACH. Heirigs graduated from the University of Kansas medical school in 1981, and then went on to a private practice for a time in his native South Dakota.
"After that I migrated to Oklahoma, where I worked at Indian Health Services in Lawton for nine years. Right after the first Iraq war in 1991, there was quite an influx of Soldiers at Fort Sill. I had become friends with the chief of medicine here at the time, and since RACH had an overwhelming need for another OB-
GYN physician, I came over here in 1991. And I've been here ever since," he said.
Heirigs remembers those heady days in the early '90s when the birth rate exploded at Fort Sill's hospital.
"In early 1992, we were averaging over 120 deliveries a month. At that time there were three military physicians: one who did just gynecology surgery and I was the fourth physician," Heirigs said. "Sometimes the Family Practice physicians also made some deliveries, but we did the vast majority ourselves. We'd have six patients in labor at the same time. With 120 deliveries a month we were pretty overwhelmed."
Heirigs states that right now the hospital averages half the number of deliveries, about 60 to 70 a month, that they had back then. And through all those years the OB-GYN department has maintained four physicians, who are all now civilians.
"We've had multiple deployments in those 22 years that would deplete our manpower for a time. And we've had a lot of Soldier physicians who retired from the military or went on to private practice. But when I talked to those physicians after they have left, they have always said, to a person, that they wished they were back here, because it's a different lifestyle, military medicine is," he said. "I think the patients get fantastic care when they are here. There isn't a physician here right now that I wouldn't want my wife to see. We have had a number of excellent physicians who have served here.
"And we've had multiple nurses who have come here to Reynolds from the area hospitals, and I believe that is a reflection of how good our staff is, that we are basically getting the cream of the crop coming here. I think the care that our patients received is phenomenal," Heirigs said.
When asked about how the impending sequestration may affect services and care at RACH, Heirigs put his hands in the air and said, "Who knows?"
"Medicine is not like other areas of the military. Treating patients is not like working on trucks or tanks. We already had some nursing vacancies that were frozen and will continue to be vacant. Hopefully, the sequestration won't hurt us too much and the quality of medicine here will not change," Heirigs said, adding, "We've made multiple plans for labor and delivery, and furloughing will definitely affect labor and delivery, but again, we will make the best of the situation and move forward. I think only time will tell."