Lynn Taylor, M.D., FACP, is an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious disease at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine and the director of Miriam Hospital’s HIV/Viral Hepatitis Co-Infection Program. Honored as the 2014 Physician of the Year by the Rhode Island Medical Women’s Association (RIMWA), she never planned to enter the medical field. In fact, the bookish daughter of a Brooklyn, New York, English teacher and a librarian said she perceived doctors as “pretentious,” thinking pre-med students were simply following their parents’ persuasive arguments to choose the prestigious world of medicine.
Taylor, on the other hand, wanted to pursue a life dedicated to social justice. Growing up in a tiny house filled with books, music and art, she yearned to make a difference. Decades have passed since Taylor’s high school graduation, and yet her goal, already achieved, remains the same.
Even though liberal arts played a huge part in her upbringing, math and science fascinated Taylor, who attended a public school where girls weren’t encouraged to advance in those fields. When Taylor wanted to join the math team, she was told to bake some cookies for the team instead. Her parents decided to give their daughter a chance to follow her interest by signing her up for a girl’s math and science program jointly sponsored by Radcliffe College and Harvard Summer School. The decision turned out to be pivotal.
Taylor savored the experience, calling it “eye-opening” and “extraordinary.” She was surrounded by teens who were just as excited to learn the history and cultural context of science, to study astronomy and geology. The girls examined such subjects as the atomic bomb and nuclear warfare and went on weekly field trips to meet women scientists.
Afterward, Taylor understood that there was more to the world than she had realized. Her senior year dragged on while she graded math papers and waitressed. Taylor knew she wanted to do something worthwhile and continue studying. After visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she left disenchanted with the “heavily male-dominated” environment. Thirsty for knowledge, she chose to attend Harvard University – “an intellectual playground.”
In her late teens, Taylor didn’t feel at ease in social situations. To shield herself, she took on multiple jobs that provided responsibility and distraction. Among them were: stints at a flea market, babysitting, leading bike tours for the 92nd Street Y in NYC, working for a jeweler and cleaning bathrooms with a college dorm crew. The latter led to the more high-status role of a bellhop, a position that allowed for some great tip money during reunion weekends. Earning was important because Taylor always financed her education independently, feeling it was her responsibility to be self-reliant.
Cutting up rocks with a circular saw in the geology department, Taylor had an inkling that this was not the safest job for her. When a friend suggested that she work in the community, Taylor began counseling at a Brookline woman’s center for $5 an hour. As she learned about unwanted pregnancies through sexual assault, Taylor wanted to do more and decided to volunteer at a rape crisis center. Finding out about infections, she became interested in women’s health and switched her major to study history of women’s health in America and geology – a dual-focus history and science program.
New friends followed, leading Taylor to an epiphany that, despite the horrible stories she heard working at the center, “most people are good people.” Ruth Hubbard, a Holocaust survivor and a professor who taught a seminar on biology and women’s issues, reinforced that notion. Taylor considers Hubbard’s class a crucial influence on her career. Encouraged to pursue independence and individuality, she signed up for Operation Crossroads Africa and traveled to Sudan during the summer after her junior year in college.
There, Taylor fell in love with the Arabic language, which felt similar to Hebrew. After graduation, she took a class in it, but didn’t think she learned enough. To master the language, Taylor found work at a restaurant in Somerville, Mass. There, she was the lone waitress, working among Palestinian men. Even though she was an outsider, Taylor says she “was family in five minutes.” She believes that the two cultures are “much more the same than different.” While Taylor felt like a minority in a “WASP-y Harvard environment,” she immediately identified with the dynamic in the Middle Eastern restaurant, which reminded her of her Yiddish-speaking family’s ways.
After the blond-haired Taylor overheard a fellow waiter making an anti-Semitic remark, she became afraid, realizing she’d been naïve. Wanting to speak out, she revealed her religion to a coworker and watched the news spread. It wasn’t until a band performed Hava Nagila that night that Taylor received a response to the news. She felt elated as everyone put their arms around her and danced. Taylor hoped that her disclosure proved to her coworkers that Jews were regular people – friends, not foes. She still has the number of one of those waiters on speed dial.
To pay off her school loans, Taylor added other jobs to her resume. She catered at clam chowder festivals and worked for a district attorney’s office on domestic violence cases. After she moved to Woburn, Mass., Taylor became an advocate in a child abuse unit, helping families through the criminal justice process. Seeing many cases of HIV acquired through sexual assault, watching acquaintances die of the disease, she wanted to combine her love of science with her strong adherence to the notion of tikkun olam through public health.
Taylor found work as a research assistant at the Massachusetts Department of Health. Leticia Davis, epidemiologist, public health researcher and advocate, suggested that she give medical school a chance, saying that it could be a vehicle for social justice. Taylor listened, completing the prerequisites at Tufts University while still working at the Health Department. When she applied to medical school, Taylor was an investigator of traumatic workplace fatalities. Even though it had been five years since her graduation, she was able to convince the admissions committee at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine that she could commit despite having held multiple positions in various industries. In retrospect, Taylor feels it was the way to go for her – she “got a lot out of [her] system” and was ready to devote herself to study.
Taylor applied to the National Health Service Corps, making a commitment to provide medical care to underserved populations in exchange for a two-year scholarship, book costs and a $1,000 monthly stipend. Because rent was high, Taylor ate cereal and bagels, supplemented with apples and carrots, for breakfast and lunch. For dinner, she “treated” herself to pasta or rice. When the first financial aid ran out, Taylor applied for more – a Harris Foundation scholarship allowed her to continue her rigorous education.
It was during her first year in medical school that Taylor met her future husband – both were swimming laps in a pool. Boris Bally was a Swiss metal artist who was big on recycling. The two hit it off instantly and were married three years later – in 1997 – by another swimmer who worked as a rabbi when not swimming. The bride wore a pragmatic brown dress, purchased to be worn repeatedly to fancy occasions, and the groom a colorful jacket his mother crafted for him out of Salvation Army ties. To celebrate the occasion, the happy couple went backpacking in Costa Rica, a vacation spot they revisited years later with their family of three children.
Because they wanted to be in a “friendly” city, they moved to Providence, where Taylor did her residency at Brown from 1997 to 2000. Doing research training at the Miriam Hospital with 10 other women, she was inspired by their “great sisterhood.” While her husband was practicing his motto, “Use it up, wear it out. Make it do. Do without” in his studio, Taylor was following it with her fellow residents. The women shared maternity clothes, information, car seats, pediatricians and study notes. They prepared for board exams together. Eventually, Taylor and Carolyn Blackman cofounded MomDocFamily – mentorship for women physicians raising a family and building a career. Currently, their confidential and free Listserv boasts roughly 400 Southern New England doctors. Its goal is to “keep women in medicine through the rough early years.”
Taylor wants to make female physicians’ lives easier. She reminisces about pumping breast milk in bathrooms and storage closets. Now, the Miriam Hospital has three lactation rooms. Her new battle is to convince insurance companies to pay for electric breast pumps. After all, time is of the essence for busy doctors.
The day after our interview, she organized many events for World Hepatitis Day, which honors the birthday of Nobel Prize winner Baruch Blumberg, M.D., who developed the vaccine against the Hepatitis B virus, saving millions of lives. Taylor shares that he was motivated by the Jewish belief that when one saves a life, one saves the world.
She also has been working on “RI Defeats Hep C,” a project that aims to make Rhode Island the first state to eliminate Hepatitis C. On Aug. 1, C is for Cure: a WaterFire Lighting for “RI Defeats Hep C” reinforced her work with a second awareness-raising event, following last year’s, attended by 65,000.
Even when she’s talking about doing something for pleasure, Taylor still has good causes in mind. This September, she is planning to do an ocean swim in Provincetown with her husband. She had done it before as a student and will now be fulfilling an earlier promise to return. We wish her calm waters.
IRINA MISSIURO is a writer and editorial consultant for The Jewish Voice.