Elizabeth R. Vaughan '75

Healing in Stilletos
October 1, 2004

 

Elizabeth R. Vaughan '75

As a physician in Greensboro, North Carolina, Elizabeth Vaughan enjoys bucking convention. She works outside the health-insurance system, providing primary-care services to patients for a flat fee. She is an advocate of "functional" medicine, which ministers to the body, mind, and soul of patients -- and runs counter to what she calls the modern medical profession's "cookie-cutter" approach to healing.

She bucks medical convention in other ways, as well. At the office, she sports tight shirts, miniskirts, and stiletto heels. Four years ago, when she was practicing in tiny Martinsville, Virginia, her attire and hourglass figure prompted USA Today to dub her the "Erin Brockovich of rural medicine"--a reference to the provocatively dressed California paralegal who was portrayed in a movie by Julia Roberts.

A wave of publicity followed for Vaughan, who suddenly found herself on Today and Dateline NBC and in newspapers across the Atlantic. "She's not your father's doctor," one article said. "Your momma wouldn't have allowed it."

Vaughan, by her account, was anything but a sex symbol during her days as a chemistry major at Duke. Overweight, reserved, and lacking confidence, Vaughan says she blossomed after completing medical school at the University of Virginia and a residency in emergency medicine at the University of Michigan. "I really came into my own in my early thirties by being on the job and taking the knocks and realizing, 'Huh, I'm pretty good at what I do,' " she says.

Buoyed by her professional success, Vaughan lost weight and began dressing in what has become her trademark style. One thing didn't change, however: her seriousness about her work. A fourth-generation physician (her great-grandfather, Victor C. Vaughan, was a president of the American Medical Association and a leading proponent of the theory that germs cause disease), Vaughan edited the textbook Passing the Boards in Emergency Medicine. She has a thriving practice of more than 400 patients--men, women, and families alike--who pay a flat annual fee of $1,500 that covers physical exams and all office visits.

Vaughan doesn't want her patients to see her just when they're sick. She spends plenty of time counseling them on how to stay healthy over the long run. "I coach people into better lifestyles, because so many of the illnesses we have need to be treated by lifestyle changes," Vaughan says. "I take care of people who aren't fixed by traditional medicine, and that has been very rewarding." She holds herself to a strict regimen of exercise and nutrition, and she doesn't mind showing off the results. "I continue to dress this way because I'm able to," she says. "I think it's critically important that physicians walk the walk and talk the talk."

Vaughan bristles at the notion that her unorthodox style of dress is a marketing gimmick or, as some critics have suggested, a plea for attention. In fact, she views herself as a feminist.

"The ultimate goal of feminism is for women to be able to be themselves," says Vaughan, who was involved in Duke's Women's Studies program during its early years. "As long as we try to be artificial men and act like men, then we are discounting our own feminine traits and strengths. I don't dress this way for anybody else's pleasure. I do it because I enjoy it.

It's lively, it's young, it's enthusiastic, and that's what I plan to be for a long time."