FEATURE

A League of Her Own

Sharon Robinson '76NRS delivers on her father's legacy.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2017
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Sharon had known since she was a girl that she wanted to work in a hospital someday (maybe it was all those hours watching The Doctors), and in 1968 she entered Howard University to study nursing. Also that year, against her parents’ wishes, she married a young man who, unbeknownst to her parents or anyone else, had been abusing her physically and emotionally for two years, shattering her already fragile self-esteem. They were married for a year before Sharon found the strength to leave. Then, in 1971, her brother Jackie, who had survived a tour in Vietnam and conquered an addiction to heroin, died in a car crash at twenty-four.

By the time of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati, where her father was to be honored on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his breaking the color barrier, Sharon was at a low point. Her second marriage was collapsing, she was mourning her brother, and she was still coping with the trauma from her first marriage.

Yet she cherished that moment in Cincinnati. The family stood strong together, though her father, white-haired and blind in one eye, appeared older than his fifty-three years. His diabetes had advanced, and his heart was failing. Nine days after the tribute, Jackie Robinson died.

The funeral was held in New York at Riverside Church. Jesse Jackson gave the eulogy. No grave can hold this body down, he said. It belongs to the ages.

 

After her brother’s death, Sharon had watched her mother crumble and then put herself back together. Rachel Robinson, like her husband, was a fighter, and Sharon took her cues from her mother’s resilience.

She was grateful, too, that toward the end of her father’s life, she’d had a chance to spend some time with him talking about her future. Sharon was interested in women’s health and brought up the idea of going to medical school for obstetrics and gynecology. Her dad was delighted: it didn’t matter to him if she went or not; he was simply pleased that she had the faith in herself to consider it.

As it turned out, Sharon chose another path. At Howard she’d learned about midwifery, and the more she thought about it, the more she realized she didn’t want to do C-sections. She wanted to be part of the entire birthing process. She wanted to be a midwife.

Columbia’s School of Nursing had a graduate nurse-midwifery program. Established in 1955, it was the first of its kind in the nation. For Sharon, Columbia was ideal: a pioneering school in an urban setting, where she could work with a diverse population. She got in and got started.

“It was a very exciting time, because women’s health care was changing,” Sharon says. “Women were getting basic rights around contraception and abortion and childbirth itself: having more choice in how they delivered, having a voice in their care, and bringing the family into the birth experience. That was all part of my era.”

After graduating from Columbia, she got an internship at LA County Hospital. “It was one of the best internships in the country, with a massive amount of births, and I got a lot of experience in six months. I had to deliver in all sorts of crazy circumstances. Sometimes the women delivered in the hallway.” She next joined a small home-birthing practice in West LA: when her beeper went off she’d ride her bike from her home in Venice to the moms-to-be in Santa Monica. “Midwives in this country started off in Kentucky and rode horses,” says Sharon, who had a horse as a girl. “Think of it as the contemporary Kentucky midwife for the beach folks.”

Her next stop was San Francisco General Hospital, where she dealt with pregnant teens. “That was my subspecialty: adolescent health and working on self-esteem, since self-esteem had been such a big issue for me. I used my time with the teenager to help her build confidence and let her know that part of being a good parent is being sure of yourself.”

A good midwifery experience means you have a bond with the expectant mother from labor to delivery, Sharon says. She spent many hours in dimly lit birthing rooms, listening. And then came the birth. “That’s what I miss the most — the touch, the feeling of a baby, of a new life coming out, and you’re there holding it and passing it to the mother. It’s incredible to see.”

 

1978 was another tumultuous year. Sharon got engaged, then pregnant, and then left her fiancé and moved back east, where her son Jesse was born. She stayed at home with Jesse for a year, and then, in the fall of 1979, she returned to Columbia to teach at the School of Nursing.

Jesse was everything to Sharon. He was not an easy child to raise. He had dyslexia and ADHD, speech and hearing problems — “a whole host of things that required intervention,” Sharon says. “I found it challenging to handle all that as a single parent.” After three years at Columbia, Sharon needed the structure of a nine-to-five, so she took a job leading PUSH for Excellence, Jesse Jackson’s educational nonprofit for high school students.

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