Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Human Interest

After a lifetime of labor and sleepless nights, a Tampa doctor decides to deliver his last baby, No. 7,357

By LANE DeGREGORY | Times Staff Writer


His pregnant patient was progressing slowly at home. So the doctor told her to head to the hospital. He would meet her there.

Dr. Bruce Shephard, 72, walked through his office, where the walls were filled with children's faces.

Sleeping infants, laughing toddlers, gap-toothed grade schoolers, prom princesses. Every age, from a minute old through motherhood.

Every one of them, he brought into the world.

He knew those babies before they took their first breath. He pulled them into the light. He cradled them as they opened their eyes.

Beneath the blotter on his desk, he keeps a tally: 7,356 births.

The baby coming that Tuesday would be his last.

"The mom had a tense beginning, increased fluid," Dr. Shephard told his office manager. "I didn't sleep much last night.

"I'm anxious about this one."

• • •

He was a Boy Scout who collected butterflies. A history major at UC-Berkeley. He wanted to be a doctor but had an aversion to sick people. And when his father's friend invited him to see a surgery, he felt so faint he had to stumble out of the operating room.

Then one day, while walking down the stairs during his senior year at college, he had an epiphany. Obstetricians don't have to deal with disease and death all the time. They bring life.

"Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do."

After medical school at UC-San Francisco, and a residency at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital, Shephard moved to Tampa in 1976 to work with a group of doctors at the new Women's Hospital.

But he wanted to know his patients. And to be able to promise them that, when it was time, he would be the one to deliver their babies. So 22 years ago, after having three kids of his own, he opened his own office.

He has been on-call ever since, sleeping with a walkie-talkie, then a pager, now his cell phone. At least once a week, he has been awakened by a patient whose baby wouldn't wait. And he has slipped on his green scrubs and gone to work.

• • •

The patient was calm. Her pain wasn't bad yet. Shephard checked around noon at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital and saw she was 3cm dilated; 7 more to go. He broke her water. The amniotic fluid was clear.

"That's a good sign," he told her.

Elizabeth DeRocher nodded and thanked him. She had two other sons, years ago, delivered by different doctors. When she had learned she was pregnant this time, at age 31, she started searching doctor reviews on-line.

She didn't know that Shephard had chaired Florida's Obstetrics and Gynecology Society, that he taught at the University of South Florida and wrote The Complete Guide to Women's Health. She didn't know he had articles published in McCall's, Mademoiselle and Physicians' Weekly, or that he had talked about the pill on the Today show with Gloria Steinem, or that he had been running the Boston Marathon when the bombs exploded.

She just saw that two generations of his patients adored him. And trusted him. "You had the best of all the reviews," she told him. "And you've been doing it the longest."

Shephard folded his hands around hers. "All these years, and you're the last," he said. "Just keep breathing, and I'll be back to check on you."

As soon as he stepped into the lobby, his cell phone buzzed. The baby's heart rate was dropping, then soaring.

The nurse needed him to come back.

• • •

Shephard had delivered babies for girls as young as 13, and for women in their late 40s. He had welcomed infants weighing less than a pound, and as much as 13. He lost only one mom, who had an immune-system disorder. He never wanted to count the stillbirths.

His profession, he said, had shifted in so many ways. No one uses forceps any more, or puts the mom to sleep for the delivery. Dads not only come into the delivery room, but also take Facebook videos. Breast-feeding has increased. Adoption has dropped. Patients seldom ask about abortion.

"One thing that hasn't changed is unplanned pregnancies," he said. Sex education is still lacking, both at home and in school, he complained. At least half of his patients didn't plan to have that child.

At the height of his practice, about a decade ago, Shephard was seeing an average of 150 pregnant women at a time — and delivering 15 babies a month.

But five years ago, he cut back. He stopped taking high-risk patients or people pregnant with twins. He had more and more trouble sleeping, always being on-call. His wife asked about retirement.

He finally had to admit: "At this point in my life, a little more sleep would be a good thing."

Only one doctor older than him is still delivering babies in Hillsborough County. Only one other OB/GYN in Tampa has a solo practice.

"He's very unusual, still being always on-call," said Dr. Jill Hechtman, who has delivered babies at St. Joseph's for 12 years. "I so admire his work ethic, and how conscientious he is with the patients."

Shephard doesn't see himself as a life-giver or a part in any miracle. "It's medicine," he said. "After 40 years, it's still stressful."

And beautiful, he adds. "The emergence of innocence."

• • •

His patient was progressing quickly in Room 2. Shephard had regulated the baby's heart rate, and every few hours, he checked on the mom-to-be. By 2 p.m., she was ready for an epidural. By 5 p.m., she was ready to push.

"All right, my dear, do you want to have this baby?" he asked, pulling on his mask and purple gloves. She grimaced. "Okay, deep breath, pull your knees back. You're doing great."

He talked her through the contractions, cheered when the baby started to crown.

Between pushes, he asked the baby's name: Angel.

"Look down," the doctor said. "He's almost here."

In his right hand, he cupped the glistening head. With his left, he eased out the baby, who bleated like a lamb.

"Welcome to the world, Angel," he said.

He held the boy for a moment, studying his face, then turned to hand him to the mom. "Congratulations," he told her. "I was worried about you."

Smiling, she said, "I never worried about you."

Then the doctor did something he had never done after a delivery. He cried.

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825 or @lanedegregory.

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