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Doctor dances on unique career path

Esteemed physician was beauty queen with 3.7 GPA

By Peggy Peck
MedPage Today Managing Editor

Editor's note: CNN.com has a business partnership with MedPageToday.com, which provides custom health content. A medical profile from MedPage Today appears each Tuesday.

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Fryhofer testifies before Congress during her tenure as president of the American College of Physicians.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (MedPage Today)external link -- Dr. Sandra Adamson Fryhofer has an unusual resume: tap dancer, baton twirler, Miss Georgia 1976, M.D., and former president of the American College of Physicians.

And that's not all. She was also the winner of the swimsuit competition at the 1976 Miss America Pageant and is currently the mother of 16-year-old twins who are both state champion athletes.

On a recent day she spent eight hours caring for patients at her busy internal medicine practice in suburban Atlanta and then rushed to a track meet where her son, George William IV, competed in the 800 meters and the 4x400-meter relay for Westminster High School. Meanwhile her daughter, Sandra Lynne, had a late practice with the Westminster varsity volleyball team. Then it was back home for a late family dinner with her husband, George William III, an Atlanta attorney.

Finally taking time out for a 10 p.m. interview, Fryhofer quickly reviewed her day and let out a sigh, "Whew, so that's a day in my life."

This is a life that she said she started to plan when she was 5 years old and decided to become a doctor.

"So, I knew that meant getting good grades and that is what I set out to do."

That determination served her well when her family was touched by tragedy. Her father suffered a fatal heart attack when Fryhofer was 12.

"Of course, with what we know today and with the changes in medical treatment, the outcome would be different," she said. His death only deepened her commitment to become a doctor.

Georgia Tech twirler

In high school her ambition was nurtured by her science teacher, E. Kay Davis, who went on to become the founding executive director of the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta.

"I loved sciences and she taught chemistry and several other sciences," Fryhofer said. "She really encouraged me."

From there, Fryhofer went to Georgia Tech, where she majored in chemical engineering.

But it wasn't just chemical engineering that occupied Fryhofer's time at Georgia Tech -- she was also a featured twirler.

"I twirled three batons at a time, twirled fire batons, I twirled hoops and swords. I did it all," she said. "And I danced. I tap-danced, that was always my real release from stress."

In Georgia in the 1970s, a twirling, tap-dancing, science-loving college student seemed like a sure winner to the judges at the Miss Georgia competition, who were looking for a Georgia beauty to take home the Miss America crown.

Atlantic City dreams

In Atlantic City, Fryhofer tap-danced for her talent. She didn't make the finals, but she walked away with a special Miss America scholarship that is earmarked for use to help pay for medical school.

"I was the second Miss America contestant to go on to become a doctor," she said.

One sour note was her interview with a pageant judge who asked her, "What makes you think you could be a doctor?" Recalling that incident, she said, "That would never happen today, but back then the judge didn't think twice about it. I was surprised. I said 'I have 3.7 GPA in chemical engineering. It's never occurred to me that I couldn't be a doctor.' "

Two years into training, she had a blind date with George William Fryhofer III. As a doctor in training, her schedule was very busy, so she told him that the only time she had available was on Easter Sunday.

"He said he would accompany me to church and then he went with me to an exercise class. The date lasted until 5 p.m.," she said. "After that, I never dated anyone else and we were married 11 months later."

Unexpected diagnosis

By the time she finished her residency and was ready to join an internal medicine practice at Piedmont Hospital, her new husband had started work with an Atlanta-based law firm.

Twenty years later, she is still working at that same practice, and she has nurtured a special interest in women's health. That interest was triggered by an event in the early days of her practice.

"A young woman came in complaining of abdominal pain. It was, as it happens, just about exactly nine months after the young woman's senior prom. She had put on some weight, but as her mother said, 'All college freshmen put on some weight,' " Fryhofer recalled. "But when I did the pelvic examination, I saw something that I wasn't expecting: There was the baby's head."

Realizing that she was out of her depth, Fryhofer said she quickly called a friend who practiced obstetrics and gynecology in the same building. The patient was strapped to a stretcher, and "together we pushed the patient over to the hospital where the baby was delivered," she said.

That incident had a profound effect upon Fryhofer. "From then on, I made 'date of last menstrual period' part of my routine history for all women," she said.

Coinciding with her early days in practice, there was a growing national movement to improve health care for women. Fryhofer eagerly joined that movement. Also at that time, the American College of Physicians, among the oldest and most prestigious of the professional medical societies, was coming under fire for its close relationship with academic physicians and lack of involvement with ordinary practicing physicians and female doctors.

Making history

Seeking to change that image, the leaders of the college began recruiting young practicing physicians as well as female physicians. Fryhofer was a prime target for those recruiters and she was quickly taken into the ACP fold and rapidly groomed for leadership.

That was 1994. In 2000, Fryhofer made history by becoming the youngest president of the ACP and the first mother. "I was the second woman, but the first mother."

For the past 10 years, she has served on a variety of national advisory committees addressing problems ranging from adult vaccination policies to medical care of uninsured patients.

And through it all she has continued to treat patients five days a week at her office.

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