She's board certified in obstetrics and gynecology, Chief Medical Officer and co-founder of True Women's Health, and she has driven that race car. Dr. Diana Bitner is today’s Powerful Woman.
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Produced by women, about women, “Powerful Women, Let's Talk” is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live. “Powerful Women, Let's Talk” is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.
Shelley Irwin: She’s board certified in obstetrics and gynecology. Chief Medical Officer and co-founder of True Women's Health. Plus, she's written a book and has driven a race car. So, let's meet Dr. Diana Bitner. Welcome to “Powerful Women, Let's Talk.”
Diana Bitner: Hello, thank you for having me.
Irwin: And I understand all went well with that race car experience?
Bitner: It did, it was fantastic. It was a formula one, 136 miles an hour, six inches off the ground, straight stick, five-point restraint, amazing. I took my daughter, Pixie, for her 18th birthday. And it was just a blast.
Irwin: Mom wanted to make sure she was there!
Bitner: Oh, I was down there, too. We each had our own car and a pace car and the whole thing is awesome.
Irwin: So, you’re full of energy and full of, certainly, adventure and, yet, you deliver babies and work with women and I guess that's kind of the elephant in the room. When did you know you wanted to, well, deliver babies?
Bitner: Well, that's what interesting. It wasn’t about the babies; it was about the women. And so, you know, once I was in med school at Wayne State, I saw all deliveries happening and I'll never forget my first C-sections. Like, oh, I didn't know how that happened, but I was like, I want to be like that doctor who helps women get through this most vulnerable, scary moment and everybody's healthy, everybody's good. And it happened like they wanted it to happen. I wanted to be that doctor that helped women get through that moment. I mean, babies are cute you know. But that was the goal of that event, you know, to be there with a couple no matter their situation and help it happen. That's what I wanted to do.
Irwin: And was it a dream, at childhood, did you pursue this, ‘I want to be a doctor’?
Bitner: Yeah, I found this book series in my church library when I was like 10 - “Cheery Aims” series -about this World War 2 nurse, and she was this nurse who would walk into a room and just make people feel comfortable. And then I thought, well wait I could be the doctor, but to walk into a room, make people feel comfortable, helping them be safe, get them through the situation. Yeah, I started to want to be a doctor at a really young age.
Irwin: And yet you paid your dues to get to where you are now.
Bitner: Definitely paid my dues.
Irwin: Let's talk all things “True Women's Health.” First of all, did you set a goal to be a Chief Medical Officer of “True Women's Health.”
Bitner: That was never the goal. So, this has been a long journey of making it happen. You know, in terms of, I had a career pivot when I was about 15 years into practice and my job was exactly how I hoped it would be. I got to help women every day, either delivering babies or dealing with issues and then resulting in a surgery and doing a really good job through a scary surgery, in the office helping young women with family planning and sexuality and all that good stuff. But there was this ‘a-ha’ moment I had a patient who was an RN and had menopause symptoms and she was taking some hormones and she said, ‘the hormones aren’t working, I want more’ and I said, ‘I don't know much about this hormone thing, but I think you're on as much as you're supposed to be on.’ ‘Well, I’m still having symptoms.’ ‘Well, I don't know much about that.’ So, you know, and so she went to another doctor, she got more hormones, she ended up having a blood clot in her lung and almost dying. So, I learned a lot of things from that encounter. Number one, menopause, is way more complicated than a prescription, it's about lifestyle and diet and sugar and water. Menopause is a really important time in life when it really can add to all the other life stressors. So it turns out, she was working too much, she wasn't eating well and then, you know, hormones are powerful so I learned really wanted to learn about hormones and that journey is what brought me to True Women’s Health.
Irwin: And let's stay in that niche, in menopause. You had time to write a book.
Bitner: Well, I made time to write a book, right, you know, again, never started out to write a book but, again, as I started to I went to my first Woman's Health meeting and I was like ‘oh my god.’ It was on Hilton Head, I will never forget, and I was just blown away by women who were learning and studying about menopause and women's health and I thought, there's so much information out there I need to bring this to West Michigan. And, you know, my M.O. is that I see something, and I figure out I want to do that, and then how to do it and so in my process to figure out how to bring all that information to women here in West Michigan, I had to come up with the process. And so that process of care we call ‘waypoints’ and basically it's a way to organize a woman's health in nine areas of wellness.
And so, again, I was just a doctor. I didn't know how to do research or write or, you know, so I became a research mentee of the Menopause Society and learned about research. And so, in writing this process of care, I then did a pilot study of a 100 women - like how does this work? Does this really help women? Because me talking to women about menopause, one-on-one, was really… My next appointment was eight months out, people couldn't get in. They were like finally there’s someone who gets this and so I'm learning and helping. So, bottom line, doing this pilot study it was then, like, wow this works, and then we researched and looked at the data. You know, when women really are empowered to know about their health… these women lost weight, they dropped their waist circumference which is a risk factor for heart disease, they lowered their blood pressure, they were empowered, they knew about their bodies. And so we published the data in the Journal Menopause and my patients kept saying, ‘would you write this stuff down?’ So, I wrote the first book, the first edition, which is called, ‘I Want to Age Like That.” Because we all have a ‘that.’ It’s not about me telling a patient how they should be, it's me asking them, ‘how do you want to be?’ And then I can be your partner to support that.
So, the book was written in all little bits. I don’t know how to write a book. So, I got an editor and a publisher. Lots of serendipitous moments finding the right people, learning how to do this, and had lots of help along the way. And the first book came out, then the second, now the third and now it has an accompanying workbook that can help people walk through the process.
Irwin: How important is goal setting, chasing a passion in any field, Dr. Bitner?
Bitner: I think having a passion is everything, I mean I think about sort of how my life has unfolded, you know, lots of learning and opportunities and lots of goal setting. I was adopted twice, first time at birth -big shout out to Bethany. Second time at 15, and I really learned to be a survivor and to have goals. For example, I saw this woman at church who had just come back from an exchange program. I thought, I want to be an exchange student. So, I didn't know anybody and have any money, I'm like I'm going to be an exchange student. I figured it out and I became a Rotarian exchange student, back in the day. Then, you know, college, med school, you know, I wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t have any money, so I borrowed and got scholarships, I figured it out. So, that goal of being a doctor, even though it was eight years away, but it wasn't just like I’m working in a vacuum. I loved what I was doing, I love to learn, I love to study, and I really, you know, got lots of good habits along the way and, you know, and then OBGYN residency. I wanted to be an OB doc, so, you know, OB residency is four years, I worked 100 hours plus a week, three kids, married - now divorced - you know, so it's just a lot of process along the way and to me, it's not only just the goal, but it's that passion to keep us moving through all of this. So important.
Irwin: Back to your health hat. How important is health, especially prevention, in these days?
Bitner: You know, it's so, so important. I think prevention has really kind of gotten a bad rap because, like how do we do that, right? So, to me, it's about number one that goal. So, especially in these days with the global pandemic and all, it's about resilience. We know that resilience as possible.
So, resilience, let's say to fight an infection such as COVID, it's to be resilient to cope with all the changes and with all the other things going on in the world, how can we keep our power? How can we have our core of… so, to me, prevention is about maintaining that resilience to reduce the risk of chronic illness. What makes me crazy is that 90 percent of health care dollars are spent on preventable illness, right? I hate that, for example, so many women are having, let's say, these chronic illnesses developing. They don't even know, they're silent.
You know, I’ll never forget I had a patient in the hospital who came in for, she fell and broke her hip. And while she was having her hip fixed, she had a heart attack on the table. And then I got called to see her as the gynecologist because she was having bleeding. Because she was on blood thinner, she was bleeding. I diagnosed her with early uterine cancer. So here in the course of two days, she was diagnosed with three preventable conditions. Why do they develop? She was busy, she was taking care of her family, she had 10 kids and a gazillion grandkids, and she cooked, and she ate, and she went through - she suffered through - menopause. Menopause is the biggest risk factor for all those three conditions.
She didn't have anybody kind of help her through that and she just kind of went through taking care of everybody else and never taking care of herself. So, again, in terms of prevention, to me it means if women know what's going on like, I don’t know about you, but I'm a bossy Dutch girl, don't tell me what to do. But if you give me the information, give me the tools, I got this. And that's what I want to do for women.
Irwin: Let's do the ‘bossy.’ A lot of times if a young woman if they are assertive, they're called ‘bossy.’ How do we make that distinction that, I have this trait about me that you're not going to change?
Bitner: Exactly and I'm as bossy is they come, but again, it's that emotional intelligence.
Irwin: Is it bossy?
Bitner: Again, semantics, right? I think a certain self-confidence, yeah, I love that. What is that sign that says ‘bossy’ with a line through it, like, I agree with you, but it's assertive, it’s smart, but it’s also having that emotional intelligence of knowing when to pick your battles. You know being a woman in medicine, there definitely were some challenges but I tried not to give it energy, you know, and definitely I've got my battle wounds of sexism and you know all of that that have gone through it. But I just kind of kept moving like again, it's having that goal and that passion like, I got this. And then in terms of being assertive and the emotional intelligence of when to have a certain energy with someone, where’s the opening, what to do, but yet to have a calm sense of myself and make it happen.
Irwin: Let's talk about yourself. I understand you have been bitten by the Peloton dog.
Bitner: I have. You know, I tell my patients, I've drank the Peloton Kool-Aid but I love surrounding myself by people who are excellent and they know their thing. You know, I learn all the time and I've learned so much from the Peloton instructors. So, you know, the bike is not in my budget. I don't have the official bike, but I use the app. Last night I did a 45-minute yoga, the night before a 45-minute total body with Adrian, you know these trainers are like top of their game, they’re incredible and, you know, I've learned lots of stuff, you know, all about motivation and how motivation is just like the frosting on the cake. So, these instructors have lots of great wisdoms about, you know, exercise is just something we do to maintain her body but then to have fun doing it. I really look forward to my time on my bike and doing all my Peloton stuff so, yes, I love Peloton.
Irwin: Practicing what you preach. A CMU grad, what did it take to be the valedictorian of your class?
Bitner: Well, it’s so funny, like my goal was not to be the valedictorian, my goal was to have really good grades and to succeed and get into medical school. And so, you know, I had very strict habits. Monday through Thursday I had class all day, then go for a run, I would eat my dinner and I'd head to the library, take a 10-minute nap at 8 o'clock, walk home at 11.
So, I just really maintained a schedule and so the whole valedictorian thing just was a result of that. And I'll never forget what my second dad said. He said, I don't want you just to memorize stuff, I want you to own it. You own the concept, so therefore it is yours forever. And so, I studied to learn, not study for a test. And, of course, the accounting kids hated it when I set the curve, even in the accounting class.
But I just really, I wanted to know it and so the result was a 3.997 at Central. I got a B plus in an aerobics class because the guy said I didn't move my hips right, like are you serious? But it got me in the med school so that's all I cared about.
Irwin: You're not perfect. Hey, you love to cook, so what's for dinner tonight?
Bitner: I do. Yes, so I've got a butternut squash black bean chili that was in the crockpot and ready to go. I eat a very plant-based diet so all about those healthy proteins. And at True, we preach the ‘seeds,’ the seven essential elements of daily success. And one of those seeds is food, and we talk about five healthy carbs a day, five healthy proteins, three healthy fats and one treat. And so, it's like how can we have those? And so that butternut squash chili. But I love to cook, and I cook a lot just from scratch and making stuff up. One of the things, we have a nutrition coach at True named Anna, and so we're building, we're writing a cookbook called, ‘I Want to Eat Like That,’ and so just like “I Want to Age Like That,” it's that “I Want to Eat Like That.” Another book coming out would be, you know, ‘I Want to Have Sex Like That.’
Irwin: Let's start there, I knew we were going to go there.
Bitner: Sexual health is so important. Can we talk about sex, right? So sexual health is so important. It's really interesting, back in the day when I was a busy OB, like I never wanted to talk about sex to my patients because I didn't know how to answer it.
So, it was learning a lot of good information with, then, how can we talk about this in a way? Sexual health is so important to women, not only sexually identity, but just being able to talk about it helps people feel young, like themselves and, again, just having that partnership with a healthcare provider that they can talk about it, it’s super powerful. So, we have the sex deck. It's a card game that I invented, it’s on our website, that helps people talk about it.
Irwin: Alright. How does a woman find her power, Dr. Bitner?
Bitner: I think it's go, to just really allow ourselves some quiet time, and just to go inside in and just be able to find that power and then learn about our bodies, trust our voice. Trust. You know, one of the books at my bedside table is ‘Untamed’ by Glennon Doyle. I love how she talks about, you know, what is that in us, what is that voice, what is that knowing, and then how we incorporate that in our faith-based practice or, you know, whatever. But it's just allowing ourselves that stillness, and then making it happen, taking advantage of the network, asking for help when you need it, but finding that power. It really does start from listening in, going in, going inside.
Irwin: And you can speak to me in Portugese?
Bitner: *speaks Portugese*
Irwin: Does anyone ever name their newborn Diana these days?
Bitner: You’ll laugh at this. Maybe a couple times in practice, but when I lived in Brazil as an exchange student, the couple had a baby while I was there as a 15-year-old and they named their baby Diana but they spelled it with a ‘D-Y’ to make sure they would say it ‘Diana’ in Brazil. Yes, there is a Diana out there in Brazil somewhere.
Irwin: Thank you for your time Dr. Diane Bitner, chief medical officer and co-founder of True Women's Health.
Bitner: Thank you for having me.
Irwin: And thank you for listening to this edition of “Powerful Women, Let’s Talk.” I’m Shelley Irwin.
Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more “Powerful Women, Let's Talk”? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. “Powerful Women, Let's Talk” is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real. It is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.