Though funding for women’s health in Texas has declined dramatically in recent years, the Women’s Health Clinic at UT-Austin, funded entirely by tuition dollars and clinic fees, has remained untouched by state budget cuts and consequently has continued to serve campus women from its quiet corner of the Student Services Building.
In the women’s health waiting room, things appear permanently calm. The television is turned to the Travel Channel. Behind the receptionist’s glass, a tiny lamp drowns out the fluorescent light. Patients sign non-disclosure forms, saying they won’t tell anyone who they’ve seen coming in and out of the office, and conversation is minimal. This is a place for women, capital “W,” separate from the general medicine and sports medicine clinics downstairs, and it saw more than 9,960 visits from women in the 2011-2012 school year.
Barbara Blizzard, a nurse midwife with short brown hair and a thick Texas accent leads the team at the Women’s Health Clinic, has worked there since August of 1987.
Blizzard’s words are careful and measured, peppered with phrases like “health care messages” and “continuity of care,” but she still manages to get her point across. She is here to do her job, and her job is to help women get basic care — the kind they would get from their obstetrician or gynecologist. She sees patients during every available hour of the day.
Blizzard, a native of Lubbock, earned a nursing degree from UT in 1972. Blizzard didn’t give the pat sentimental response when asked why she studied nursing, which is a testament to what she sees as her most valuable skill as a nurse — her honesty.
“I’m a product of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and there weren’t a lot of options then,” Blizzard said. “There weren’t many women who worked then. [That was] back before women’s lib, so most women at that time probably considered nursing or they considered teaching because those really were the options that were talked about.”
Back then, though there “was a concept of women’s health,” it was frequently a part of general family care as opposed to a service provided by a separate doctor. And, as Blizzard frequently remarked, women’s liberation had just started to make its mark on health care.
“That was a whole time when we were first starting to see women awake for deliveries and husbands in delivery rooms. I mean, it was a very different time,” Blizzard said.
The separate women’s health facility at UT started in the early 1980s, according to Blizzard, “because there was a nurse practitioner [at UHS] who did women’s health and she and one of the family practitioners [who] talked about having a separate area for women.”
Though separating out women’s health services was a big change at the time, Blizzard said not much has changed about the work the clinic does since she started in 1987, partly because college students tend to make the same mistakes. Birth control options have grown, but not extensively, and though Blizzard said she spends more time educating patients, it is not because their knowledge of their bodies has decreased but because federal health guidelines are so prone to changing.
“STIs changed,” Blizzard said. She also noted that women are delaying childbirth longer. But, overall, “There’s a lot that is the same,” Blizzard said. “You still see people make mistakes, and you still see people learn from them and you still see people grow up through those years.”
In Texas, the words “women’s health” stir thoughts of budget cuts and political attacks more often than routine exams and well-decorated waiting rooms. In Travis County alone, state budget cuts took Department of State Health Services funding for Family Planning Clinics from more than $2 million in 2010 to just under $300,000 in 2012. This legislative session, it appears that much of this funding will be restored, leaving the roller-coaster ride of women’s health in Texas temporarily at the top of the hill.
But the Women’s Health Clinic, because it does not receive state funding, has remained immune to all the budget changes, a quiet calm for students in a statewide storm, a place where the television is always tuned to the Travel channel and Blizzard and her staff stand ready to help women “navigate the health care system.” Or, as Blizzard put it in a less guarded moment, “not to be their mother … but to care about them.”