One of These Docs Is Doing Her Own Thing
She’d come to Colorado from Western Pennsylvania, by way of Greensburg, a mining town near Pittsburgh, and by way of a few stops that began with Florida and a father she never knew. Her dad was a U.S. Army Private First Class during World War II, stationed in Florida, which is where Gabow was born. Her dad was among the troops who pushed into Germany, and during the invasion, on March 20, 1945, he fell victim to a booby trap, and ultimately, a short time later, died from the injuries.
Only a few years ago, before her elderly mother’s mind began to fade, Gabow’s mom dug out letters her father had mailed from Germany. Gabow had never before seen the notes. She’s still not sure why her mom suddenly dusted them off. Gabow suspects it might be because her mother felt her mind going and wanted her daughter to see the letters with her before it was too late. “He wrote about the future,” Gabow says. “About how much he loved my mother and about how he couldn’t wait to see his baby girl.”
A war widow with a baby daughter, Gabow’s mother returned to Western Pennsylvania from the Sunshine State and married the man who became Gabow’s stepfather. Gabow describes her family as being “traditionally Italian”—both of her grandfathers were from Italy. In the 1950s, not too many girls from traditional Italian families in Coal Country talked about wanting to be a doctor, but her stepdad was supportive. He was so supportive he insisted she attend a local, all-girls Catholic college, Seton Hill, to ensure she would not be sidetracked by boys.
Gabow found a mentor at Seton Hill in Sister Marie Scott, who was the head of the biology department. Scott took Gabow to the marine biology lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where the nun was also the first woman to sit on the board. During her two summer sessions at Woods Hole with Scott, Gabow learned about more than science. “To see this nun hike up her robe and tie it under the belt and wade out into the water to collect specimens,” Gabow says, “with all these men—all these high-powered scientists—I think it was a really good lesson: You don’t have to change who you are, what you are, what you believe. If you’re a woman, you can succeed in a man’s world.”
In 1965, when she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania medical school, Gabow was one of only five girls in her class of 125. Shortly after graduating, in 1969, she signed on with the University of Colorado’s Health Sciences Center, and thereby joined the staff of Denver’s city hospital. There’s a long-standing arrangement between the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Denver Health, wherein the institutions share staff and expertise. Denver Health is a teaching hospital, and all of the full-time physicians on staff, at what was then still Denver General, are members of the CU med school faculty. So while conducting a renal medicine research study at CU, Gabow became the chief of the renal division at Denver General. She was the only woman in the hospital’s department of medicine.
For the better part of 15 years, Gabow ran what was then the nation’s largest patient study of polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary illness that causes painful cysts and enlarges kidneys. In 1981, however, she lifted her head from the research to consider something else: She was promoted to director of medical services. Ten years after she took on that management role, which oversaw things like the OR and ER, the hospital was looking for someone new to oversee the entire department of medicine, and Gabow got the job.