Marcella L. Roenneburg, M.D.
Providing Medical Care to African Women
By Susan Josephs
Imagine being 12 years old…and pregnant. Imagine losing your baby and suffering internal damage due to the long labor, damage that has left you, by your family’s standards, “unclean.” Imagine being abandoned by your husband and ostracized by your community. For many girls in the West African nation of Niger, they don’t have to imagine it…they live it.
For Maryland physician Dr. Marcella L. Roenneburg this was intolerable. Determined to make a difference, Dr. Roenneburg joined a medical mission to the West African country of Niger, where she operated on scores of women with these devastating childbearing-related wounds, called vesicovaginal fistulas—holes between the bladder and the vagina.
It is now two years later, and the 51-year-old urogynecologist remains a tireless advocate for the plight of these women, who predominantly suffer from urinary incontinence and live as outcasts in their native countries.
“We seldom see fistulas in the U.S., so people don’t realize what a tremendous health problem this is internationally,” she says. “When you go to these countries, you fix what you can fix and are left with the realization that there’s so much more that needs to be done.”
Dr. Roenneburg has traveled twice to Niger and once to Bangladesh. She is scheduled to leave for Sierra Leone later this year.
When she’s not traveling, Roenneburg sees about 100 patients each week at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. A nationally recognized expert in urinary incontinence and pelvic reconstructive surgery, she regularly works 12-hour days at Mercy’s renowned Weinberg Center for Women’s Health and Medicine. Still, she makes it a point not to take work home so she can “really be there” for her 16-year-old daughter, Rachel.
“I gave up the obstetrical part of my practice to have more time to spend with her,” says Dr. Roenneburg. “It allowed both our lives to be more predictable.”
Rachel also accompanied Dr. Roenneburg on her second trip to Niger and to Bangladesh.
“I thought it was important for her to see how other people live and how you need to give things back, to do tzedakah,” says Dr. Roenneburg. “While I was in surgery, she fetched supplies we needed from the storeroom and took photos and videotaped some of the procedures I performed. I think it really gave her an understanding of what it’s like to be a surgeon and a new appreciation for what we have together.”
Raised in Wisconsin, Dr. Roenneburg grew up thinking she would become a first-grade teacher. In college, she met a woman who was pre-med, “and a light bulb went off. She made me see that I could do the same thing. That’s why I’m a big believer in role models. Sometimes you can’t see yourself in a certain position unless you see someone else in it first.”
After completing her medical degree at The Medical College of Wisconsin, Dr. Roenneburg began her residency at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore and discovered a passion for surgery.
“It’s immediate gratification. You can go in there, fix something and know you have definitely helped this person.”
Dr. Roenneburg, who lost her husband seven years ago, had converted to Judaism before she married. She continues to keep a kosher home, belongs to a modern Orthodox synagogue and sends her daughter to a Jewish day school. “It’s a big part of our lives and a big source of comfort for me,” she says.
For the rest of her working life, Dr. Roenneburg plans on taking annual trips to countries where she can offer her skills and knowledge of fistula repairs while training doctors on how to do these procedures in their own countries.
“The surgical experience I have gained has been invaluable. Our hope is that this work will translate into superior surgical techniques and better outcomes for patients, both at home and abroad.