When Heather Irobunda, M.D. ’11, speaks, people tune in. In the space of just one year she has attracted nearly 40,000 followers on the social media platform known as Instagram and another 35,000 on TikTok. She has appeared in Facebook videos with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D.-N.Y., to encourage young people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and her photo was recently splashed several stories high on the NASDAQ building in Times Square.
In February the exercise equipment company Peloton asked Dr. Irobunda, an obstetrician-gynecologist currently practicing at NYC Health and Hospitals in the Bronx, to be part of its national health and wellness advisory council to advise women on how to best exercise during pregnancy.
The rising star owes much of her newfound celebrity status to articles she began writing a little more than a year ago on her website, Irobundamd.com. In February 2020 New York City was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many patients were afraid to come in to see a doctor in person, so “Dr. Heather” as she came to be known, began answering medical questions to help young people make more informed decisions about their sexual health. Then she started putting some of this information on Instagram and TikTok, complete with graphics and music.
The posts have especially resonated with millennials and Gen Z’ers, who go to social media and the Internet for information more often than they seek out traditional sources of media, such as network television. Her topics cover a range of sexual health areas, from “panic questions” about the most common types of sexually transmitted diseases to pregnancy during COVID-19 and prenatal care.
We caught up with Dr. Irobunda recently after she spent a hectic week caring for patients. Here, she tells us more about her background and what inspires her.
We’ve heard that you’re a native New Yorker and that you went to school in the Bronx.
I am from the Bronx, born and raised. I went to public grade school here until sixth grade, when I got talented and gifted scholarships to De La Salle Academy in Manhattan for middle school and Notre Dame School of Manhattan for high school. Then I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my undergraduate education. I attended a post baccalaureate program at the State University of New York at Buffalo’s School of Medicine and then I went to Einstein and graduated in 2011. I did my residency at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Your Uncle Christopher Irobunda graduated from Einstein with M.D. and Ph.D. degrees in 1996. Did that influence you to go into medicine?
That was part of it—he’s my dad’s youngest brother, and he came to New York from Nigeria when I was just a baby. When I was growing up I thought med school took a very, very long time because he was in med school my whole childhood. It seemed to take forever! He was doing his Ph.D. coursework, and sometimes he would take me and my younger brother to his lab with him on the weekend. I would see him looking under a microscope, and I thought he was really cool, really brilliant. I was into science, and he bought me a microscope for Christmas. He’s a cardiologist now at Columbia.
As far as influencing me to go into medicine, I was into science, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be around sick people. In college I did some bench research on HIV infections, and I liked that. But I was also a sociology major and I liked public health. So after I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, I worked at Columbia University through the School of Social Work on a public health project with Black heterosexual couples where one partner was HIV positive and the other one was HIV negative. And we were testing a behavioral intervention to see if we could get them to use safer sex practices. And that research helped me choose medicine as a career.
And then you choose to go to Einstein?
When I was thinking about med school and what’s important to me, I knew I wanted to help my community. I wanted to make sure I had an experience that would prepare me for the type of work I would want to do. Plus I had fond memories from visiting my uncle. The people were always nice.
While you were at Einstein your father was diagnosed with cancer. How were you able to cope?
It was definitely crazy. Right after Christmas, during my fourth year of med school, my dad was diagnosed with stage four gallbladder cancer, and he was actually a patient at Weiler Hospital. He was really, really sick. One of the attendings from my internal medicine rotation was actually my dad's attending, and he treated him very well. But the whole situation was still earth shattering for me and my family, and my mom was working full time. I met with the deans just to tell them what was going on with my family, and they helped me reshuffle my schedule so that I could have more time to take care of my dad. So I was able to take him to chemo and to all these other appointments, which was really helpful. He was expected to live for six to 12 weeks and he ended up living a lot longer, for three more years. So that was really good.
Do you have any particularly fond memories of your time at Einstein?
I felt like I went to med school with the most amazing people ever, honestly. There were a lot of people whom I could identify with in terms of our worldview, just really interesting people. And I feel like I learned a lot. I went into my residency feeling well prepared because of my experiences on my clinical rotations at Montefiore. I got a lot of training from seeing complex cases as a med student, and I had a lot of responsibility. So it made my transition into residency more seamless.
You did your ob-gyn residency at Walter Reed. Why did you pursue military medicine?
The military helped pay for med school, so that was a big thing. And my younger brother was already in the Army. And it was something that always intrigued me. I’ve always been somebody who was up for a challenge.
You are now an attending ob-gyn at North Central Bronx Hospital for NYC Health and Hospitals. What’s a typical week like?
It’s kind of all over the place. Like today, I was in the clinic all day with ob-gyn patients, some of them higher risk than others. We had a patient who came in hemorrhaging so we had to take her straight from the clinic to the operating room. Two days ago I was on labor and delivery from 8 [a.m.] to 8 [p.m.]. I work with midwives, so they do most of the vaginal deliveries, but I help with anything complicated. And then I was back in the operating room removing ovarian cysts. So I do a lot of different things throughout the week.
On your website you say you believe women of color have a harder time feeling comfortable with their healthcare provider. Why do you think this is so?
There’s this history of distrust of the medical community, especially in communities of color, because of the experimentation that happened, like the Tuskegee syphilis study and the sterilization experiments in Puerto Rico. And there are a lot of women, especially Black women, women of color, who may feel like they are being treated differently because of their skin color. And I hear that a lot from my patients. That's why I wanted to create this platform that helps all people with uteruses, ovaries, and vaginas find good information about their reproductive organs. That's why I made my website.
You have gone on medical missions to Haiti. How much time do you spend there and what do you do when you’re there?
I've only been on one mission to Haiti so far, because I was planning to go last year and then COVID happened. I went with this group and I was the only ob-gyn on that trip and I was providing mostly gynecological care and care for people who didn't know they were pregnant. I didn't have an ultrasound or anything like that. I was using this old- school device, what we call a fetoscope, which you can use to listen to a fetus’ heartbeat. That's something that in residency you hear about, you may see a picture of, or you may pass it around during a presentation, but you don't ever rely on it. But in Haiti you use it because there are no ultrasounds where you are. We saw tons of people for all different types of ailments.
In May you were pictured with Sen. Chuck Schumer in a campaign urging people to get the COVID vaccine. How did that come about?
I was contacted because of my social media presence by Dr. Mike [Varshavski, D.O.]. I don't know if you know who he is, but he's a family medicine doctor based in New York City and the most followed doctor in the world on any social media platform. He has 4 million Instagram followers and 7 million YouTube subscribers. He was named “The Sexiest Doctor Alive” by People magazine a few years ago. He and I chat often because we're planning to do some medical collaborations. And so he sent me a text saying, ‘Hey, do you want to be part of this press conference with me and Senator Chuck Schumer about vaccine hesitancy?’ So we met with Chuck, and we spoke about the different ways that we can engage younger people in conversations about the COVID-19 vaccines and how to address some of their fears.
There are a lot of women, especially Black women, women of color, who may feel like they are being treated differently because of their skin color. And I hear that a lot from my patients. That's why I wanted to create this platform.
Heather Irobunda, M.D.
Speaking of COVID, we know that you started a blog during the pandemic about sexual health and pregnancy that caught the attention of exercise equipment maker Peloton, which named you to its health and wellness advisory panel.
I got a Facebook message from one of their vice presidents. I thought it was a joke, that there was no way that Peloton was reaching out to me via Facebook. But they were, and it was real. So we had a lot of discussions, and I think what made them want to work with me was the fact that I worked in the military, and I worked with a lot of pregnant athletes, because women in the military still have to work out during pregnancy. One of your responsibilities as an ob-gyn is helping to make sure that pregnant soldiers are physically active and are doing it safely. So for Peloton I help make sure any of the workouts prescribed for pregnant people are safe exercises. They do weights, floor work, stretches, yoga, pilates, and strength workouts. I help with some of that, and I review different videos and different exercise plans, helping them adjust the form that they are recommending to make sure that it is safe and effective for the pregnant body. I don’t review anything related to the [now recalled] treadmill or exercise bike.
Your face was on the side of the Nasdaq building in Times Square in May—several stories tall! How did that come about?
That’s something that snowballed. I gave a talk in May about health inequity that was sponsored by Nasdaq’s women’s group, its African American group, its veteran’s group, and its LGBTQ group. And I talked about my mission to empower people to have more knowledge about their reproductive health. So the way they thanked me for this was to put my picture on the side of their building in Times Square. It was surreal. They gave me a heads up that it was coming so that I could be there, and it was up for five minutes.
Do you have any advice for young people interested in medical school?
There are so many things you can do with medical training. One thing that I am figuring out through the things that I'm doing is that there are so many ways that you can use the medical knowledge that you get to really help people. You can do clinical medicine, which I do still do, and find that very fulfilling. But you can also use it to educate the public. I never thought of myself as a really, truly political person. But, you know, I find that health inequity is something I feel strongly about. And I can use my training in medicine to help create policy changes.
The potential is actually limitless. I made this path for myself because I saw a lot of patients in my cllnic who were asking, ‘Is this true? I read this on Google.’ Or ‘I saw this on Instagram. Is this real?’ We need more voices of people who actually have a medical background to talk about these things and give people answers they can trust.
Posted on: Thursday, July 15, 2021