His pager has gone off twice in an hour; his phone has rung once. “No baby yet,” Dr. Edward Wolanski says after looking at his beeper. The OB/GYN, who is on call 24/7 for his patients, truly never sleeps. He leaves his office for a few minutes then pops his head back in to say he thinks one of his patients’ water has broken.
When Wolanski retires from obstetrics in November, it will be the end of a 30-year career during which he has delivered 10,000 babies. That number is high—most obstetricians deliver about 80 to 100 babies a year. Wolanski delivered 350 last year. When he moved to Charlottesville in 1986 after finishing his residency at Vanderbilt University, he joined a group practice with a couple of other doctors. It was good for a while, but when the practice started getting larger he wasn’t able to foster the relationships with patients that he wanted. Six years later he opened his solo practice, which has been a family affair—his wife, Cindy (an RN he met while working in Nashville), has served as his office manager since day one.
As a single practitioner, Wolanski’s schedule is unpredictable. Whether it’s in the middle of dinner with his wife, riding his Harley-Davidson (which he has taken out to Orange County for home postpartum visits) or tending to one of the goldfish ponds on his Ivy property, when he gets the call that one of his clients is in labor, he drops everything.
“People ask all the time—I’ve heard it 1,000 times—‘How do you do this?’ Only because you love what you do,” he says. “The delivery is part of it, but the relationship you develop is even more important. The trust that you develop with your patients over time is invaluable. You can’t replace that with anything else.”
And his role goes beyond that of a medical doctor. Evident by the overflowing boxes of Christmas cards in his attic (he just can’t throw them away, he says), he has watched his patients and their families grow up through the years. He has seen some of them for three decades, starting with their first gynecological visit, to delivering their babies years later, followed by menopausal care.
“He absolutely loves his patients,” says Sharon Fickley, clinical educator and RN at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital who has worked with Wolanski for 22 years. “You feel like you’re working alongside someone who is doing something because he really loves it and enjoys it and it’s his passion. He really does view births as sacred. It’s not just a medical procedure—it’s a family event.”
Following his path
Wolanski became an OB/GYN on the suggestion of one of his medical school advisers at the University of Virginia. He went in thinking he would be a pediatrician, but when he learned that the field of OB/GYN allowed him to do everything—deliver babies, perform surgical procedures and provide medical care—he knew that was the route he wanted to take.
He thrives on the variety of every day. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays he sees patients in his office. Wednesday mornings are reserved for surgeries—on a recent morning he performed two hysterectomies, but he also helps patients with infertility, among other procedures.
And babies? Well, they come when they want—which is generally in line with Wolanski’s schedule, thus earning him the nickname “the baby whisperer” from one of his nurses.
Wolanski and his wife only go on vacation one week a year. Cindy has picked her husband up at the office an hour before their scheduled flight, after he had been at the hospital delivering a baby. About a year ago, he delivered 13 babies the week before his vacation, with only one baby coming while they were gone. They got home from that trip at about 1am, and by 1:30 two of his patients had gone into labor. He generally only misses about five births a year.
Wolanski credits his wife of almost 34 years with allowing him to be able to do what he loves.
“I don’t think anyone could do what I did if they didn’t have an understanding wife. You cannot understand how important that is. I get up at 2am and leave—how many people do that in their marriage? I do that all the time,” he says. “She’s just accepted that’s the way things work. That’s not always found in a relationship.”
Two weeks ago, Wolanski was called to the hospital on five nights. The babies came at 3, 3:10, 3:50, 4:50 and 7am. He’s so used to being called in the middle of night that he often wakes up at 2am out of habit. In fact, he’s woken up only to receive a page minutes later that one of his patients was in labor.
“It’s not really easy to be in solo practice,” says Fickley. “Almost no one does it—it’s a life-consuming profession.”
And not all births happen at the hospital. One time he was talking on the phone with a father-to-be, who said his wife’s contractions were 18 minutes apart. He was wrong—there was only three minutes between them. The next call to Wolanski was that the baby was coming, and the doctor gave step-by-step instructions on how to deliver the baby at home.
Wolanski himself is no stranger to home births. One woman, a nurse at UVA hospital, lived only two miles from his house. Her husband wasn’t home when she went into labor and her ride couldn’t get there in time, so Wolanski delivered her baby on the couch, with three other children running around. He used dental floss to tie off the umbilical cord.
During an ice storm, one of his patients who lived nearby was 9 centimeters dilated and needed to get to the hospital quickly. Wolanski rode in the back of the couple’s Jeep with the woman while her husband drove. They made it in time—she delivered 30 minutes after they arrived.
“I’ve got to admit I’ll miss the obstetrics,” Wolanski says. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Wolanski earned the nickname “Fast Eddie” in med school, after a professor noticed how quickly he performed surgeries. That nickname has stuck: One patient gave him a look-alike bobble head with the inscription “Fast Eddie” at the bottom. And for deliveries Wolanski knows will be quick, he sometimes wears one of the T-shirts he’s collected from the eponymous restaurant chain. And he’s had some close calls with patients whom he warned ahead of time would have fast deliveries but who labored too long at home. He met one couple at the entrance to the hospital but had to deliver the baby in the front seat of the car. He was wearing his street clothes, and an ER nurse tried to pull him out of the vehicle, thinking he was the father trying to deliver the baby.
“He’s very quick at everything he does,” Fickley says. “People know he’s quick, accurate and precise. He’s perfected the art of what he does.”
Wolanski is known for having a quiet labor room. Even in emergencies, Fickley says his manner is calm and controlled yet direct.
“A few years ago I had one of these cases you might see once in your career. …The baby came out and I figured out in a few minutes something wasn’t right—I just knew something wasn’t right,” he says. “You don’t have time to look it up or call somebody; you have to make a decision at that point. The condition had an 80 percent mortality rate in the first hour. Thank goodness I picked up something was wrong, talked to the right people and had them there; everything went okay. That’s the kind of thing that stands out. I had been taking care of that person for years and you would never see it coming.”
IN HIS HONOR
A few months ago, Sarah Pickell heard the news: The beloved doctor who had delivered two of her babies would be retiring from obstetrics.
“I could almost hear a collective gasp in our community as people began to find out,” she says. “I’m not sure it is normal to love your obstetrician so much, but I’m grateful for Ed Wolanski—for his skill and art in his practice, his commitment to the community, his empowerment of women to be healthy.”
Because there was no way Pickell could have a baby in the six months before Wolanski stopped delivering babies, she thought of the next best thing: Hold a two-mile race in his honor. Local families whom Wolanski has helped are invited to the celebratory run/walk. The race will take place at 9am on October 22 at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, and will include special events for kids and “plenty of prizes.”
The finish line will be decorated with photos of “Wolanski kids,” so Pickell is encouraging families to dig out their baby books.
Proceeds from the event will support the Family Birthing Center and Special Care Nursery at Sentara Martha Jefferson. For more information, including sponsor-
ship and volunteer opportunities, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wolanski’s focus on people comes with listening to each person and understanding what she wants during the birth. In fact, in the examining room Wolanski doesn’t sit at a computer and type out notes while a patient is talking. He listens to them and dictates notes into a chart later, although he laments the transition to all-electronic records is inevitable. He’s also available—day or night—to answer any question a patient has. For instance if she has had a cesarean section with a previous child but wants to have a natural birth the second time, he doesn’t immediately say no. Each course of action is determined on a case-by-case basis, and Wolanski explains the risks involved and says they’ll change plans if anything happens.
One thing Wolanski tells all his patients is that working out during their pregnancy is absolutely okay—he encourages them to continue their normal exercise routine until it becomes too uncomfortable or there is a medical reason not to do it, such as a history of preterm labor. Although he reports that his patients sometimes get strange looks while doing squats at the gym, he says studies have shown that moms who exercise while pregnant deliver babies with better aerobic conditioning.
“Most people who come to me know I’m pretty big on exercise,” he says. “You are programming the body to some extent (during pregnancy), and overall health is a huge factor. (But) I don’t tell people to do anything I wouldn’t do—except being pregnant.”
He certainly doesn’t advise doing something out of the norm—like suddenly taking up marathons.
Although Wolanski himself did just that, running his first at age 50. Two weekends ago, at age 60, he completed his 24th marathon in Seattle. Wolanski approaches running like he does everything else—when he can. He’s done 18-mile runs on three hours of sleep at 2 in the morning, and gone on long runs with his dogs at 11pm down the quiet back roads of his neighborhood. No matter how tired he is, his wife says, he gets his runs in.
“He truly believes in fitness and believes in the effort to be fit,” she says. “A lot of people’s hereditary doesn’t put them in the lean category. He respects people for taking the time and energy to do it.”
A typical day for Wolanski can be seeing patients all day, going home only to be called back into the hospital in the middle of the night, delivering a baby at 3am, going home to get about three hours’ sleep then be back seeing patients the next morning. He used to drink five cups of coffee a day but quit 15 years ago when he realized it wasn’t good for him. Even with little sleep, Wolanski can get up and go. He inherited it from his dad, also named Edward, a businessman who often would work until 2am, get a few hours’ sleep and go back to work the next morning.
After retiring from obstetrics (he’ll continue his gynecological practice) Wolanski hopes he has more free time to pursue his myriad hobbies, the list of which keeps growing: mountain biking, fishing, landscaping, running Muddy Buddy races with his son. Just this spring he took up beekeeping, installing two hives at his home. He says it’s much harder than it looks; he’s already lost one. A new one should arrive within the week.
While giving his father’s eulogy a few weeks ago, Wolanski showed a photo of his dad, who passed away at 94, holding a 57-pound mahi-mahi. That framed photo sits on the windowsill of Wolanski’s office, near a mobile of plush storks hanging from the wall and next to a wooden fertility carving Wolanksi brought back from Aruba. Wolanski loved fishing with his father, and continued that tradition with his own sons, Rusty, 29, and Will, 30. He’s looking forward to the day when he can enjoy the peacefulness of the sport, without the tether of a cell phone, of being on-call for the outside world.
Charlottesville is a small town, but it must feel even smaller for a man who delivered 10,000 of its children. While getting a fishing license at Gander Mountain recently, the clerk recognized Wolanski, who had delivered both him and his sister. One woman stopped him at Lowe’s—although he couldn’t recall her name right off the bat, he remembered details of her delivery. But he’s not just recognized locally. When he picked up a marathon packet in Orlando, a woman came up to him and asked if he remembered her. She had lost 150 pounds since she’d last seen him, and he recognized her after hearing her name.
Over the years, Wolanski has delivered many babies of South American students studying at UVA’s Darden School of Business. One of his patients’ husbands was at a conference in Brazil, and he started talking to the guy next to him, telling him he was from Charlottesville and that his wife was pregnant. The second guy said, oddly enough, his wife had given birth in Charlottesville—her doctor was also Wolanski.
One way Wolanski stays connected to his patients is through trinkets they send him from their home countries. He requires that nothing cost more than $2, but that the couple sign the object so he knows who it’s from. His office is but a glimpse of some of the items he’s received (his wife says she can’t even dust his home study anymore): an elephant statue from India, a blue box from South America. Each object brings back memories of the families he’s helped throughout the years; a token of their appreciation for his role in bringing their babies into the world.
“I just like talking with people, being with people,” he says. “I think that’s probably the most important thing, that’s what’s made it all worthwhile. You deliver thousands of babies, but if you don’t have the connection, I don’t think it has the same meaning.”
A couple of weeks ago two women—both pregnant—came up to Wolanski when he was at a meeting. They told him how upset they were that he wasn’t going to be delivering their babies. When he first started thinking of retiring from obstetrics, he thought he’d step away from delivering babies in April of this year. Then the end date became November. Now he says there might be one or two babies he’ll deliver in December.
Although it’s difficult to stop doing something he loves, the years of being on call every minute are catching up. It’s more difficult in his 60s to deliver a baby in the middle of the night, run home for a few hours’ sleep, then return to the office to see patients all day. Not to mention making time to go for a run with his two dogs, Obee (after OB, of course) and Ace, or play rec league softball. He hopes to one day have time to audit history or English classes at UVA and take a woodworking class at Piedmont Virginia Community College.
Fickley likens him to a Renaissance man, someone who’s “always finding new things to learn and do.” But he also serves as a teacher; he invites UVA nursing students to his practice to learn about gynecological care.
“It’s hard for me to imagine practicing obstetrics nursing without him,” Fickley says. “We will all miss him tremendously. It will be a different place without him.”
One regret Wolanski has is not having a picture of every baby he has delivered. But you can bet there won’t be a shortage of Christmas cards coming his way anytime soon.
“You just can’t wrap your head around that 10,000,” he says, smiling. “And that’s just deliveries, not to mention the husbands, wives and families.”
Cindy Wolanski calls me about five minutes after I leave the office to tell me Wolanski is on his way to the hospital with the patient who had just come in—her water had indeed broken while she was there. Just a normal day.
“People said, ‘Oh it’s never going to work; solo practitioners can’t do it anymore.’ I think I proved that wrong,” Wolanski says. “If you really love what you do, it’s going to be successful; things will work out.”
Ob babies! Families share their stories
I cannot begin to put into words what Dr. Wolanski means to me and my family. My first pregnancy resulted in a stillbirth. To this day we do not know why. Dr. Wolanski was away on a trip during my office visit with [midwife] Donna Vinal. We scheduled the birth for the day he was to return. Dr. Wolanski literally got off the plane and walked into my hospital room in his street clothes. With a bedside manner only he has, he assured me, through my tears, that all was going to be okay and that we were in this together. He was so kind, compassionate and strong for my husband and me during the labor of our son.
Over the next few months, Dr. Wolanski would call to check on me. Four months later, I was expecting again. I was a nervous wreck throughout the pregnancy. I would call Dr. Wolanski at all hours. Whether it be 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning (which happened on more than one occasion), he would immediately call me back. In a manner only he has, he would reassure and comfort me. He always encouraged me to come to the hospital or in for an office visit (whatever steps I needed to calm my nerves). On May 28, 2013, at 9:39pm our beautiful daughter was born. Riley Gail Mundie is our world! I remember Dr. Wolanski laughing and telling me that she was going to be a very active baby. He would say, “You just wait until she’s 2 or 3, you’re going to wish she would slow down!” Well, as always, Dr. Wolanski was right! He is a fabulous man and an amazing doctor. He has touched the lives of so many women, men and children. There are many women (myself included) asking, “Who will deliver my next child?”In the world of delivering babies, Dr. Wolanski has left some pretty big shoes to fill.
Our boys were mono-mono twins (in the same inner and outer sacs), but, despite many, many sonograms, that realization only came midway through our natural delivery when a second water wouldn’t break and when the pulse on the yet-unborn baby dropped after delivering the first. Dr. Wolanski very calmly started dictating orders to every person in the room at the same time. He kept his cool, and thanks to his expertise, coaching and quick reflexes, got our second twin out in record time. Either chance or fate let us carry mono-mono twins to 36 weeks and a few days and have a completely natural delivery outside the OR because another set of twins was in there at the moment; though it very nearly didn’t, it all worked out perfectly, thanks to Dr. Wolanski.
He truly is an amazing man with a unique gift, and due to him we have not one, but two boisterous boys who bring our family joy (and angst!) every day.
Cara Carter and Todd Sechser,
parents of Julian and Quinten Sechser
He kept telling me to make sure she was born on his birthday. She was born two minutes after midnight…we missed his b’day by two minutes.
Sheila K. Bernard on the birth of her daughter, Claire Wood
Dr. Wolanski delivered both of our sons, Daffron (2013) and Fielding (2014), and both apparently represented firsts for him.
We went into the hospital for Daffron on the last day of 2012 at about 10am, certain that we would have a December baby. As the day turned to night and the baby was still not here, Dr. Wolanski started to say things like, “You know, I’ve never had the New Year’s baby.” Sure enough, shortly after the clock struck 12, Dr. Wolanski declared that we needed to get that baby out ASAP, and out came Daffron. We later learned that he was the first baby born in Virginia in 2013, and we made incredibly awkward and embarrassing appearances on both local newscasts less than 12 hours after giving birth. We also received a giant blue bear from a local toy store.
Fielding came nearly two years later, and after a fairly short labor, his umbilical cord—which Dr. Wolanski thought may have been wrapped around his neck—snapped on the way out. That was messy, and Dr. Wolanski, despite having delivered thousands of babies, declared it another first for him. Despite two strange deliveries, both boys were and are perfect and we were always so relieved to be in Dr. Wolanski’s calm and confident care.
Our twins, Gunnar Edward Dahl (namesake for Dr. Wolanski), and Grace Marion Dahl, were born August 13, 2013. Without a doubt, if not for his guidance and support, we never would have welcomed our beautiful twins into this world!
Josh and Sara Dahl
Charlottesville is losing one of the world’s greatest OB doctors. He is simply the best. You do not find people anymore who are dedicated to their job like he is.
My oldest daughter might not be here without his expertise as she was born with a quadruple cord wrap (the cord was wrapped around her neck four times). A single or double cord wrap is not uncommon but out of the 13 nurses and assistants in the operating room the afternoon my daughter was born, only one person, Dr. Wolanski, had seen a quadruple cord wrap and it was about 15 years prior. Amazingly, my daughter had no health repercussions from the cord wrap, which is probably a miracle.
Seven months after my third and youngest daughter was born, I was diagnosed with advanced stage III colon cancer. The day I received the results from my colonoscopy, I drove straight to his office to leave the report and ask for his advice and opinion based on his expertise. He had not referred me for this test and one does not normally see their gynecologist in regards to colon cancer. However, I drove to see him before consulting my own family doctor, whom I also adore. I cannot tell you how this man went above and beyond to see that I received the best medical care in Charlottesville.
I will forever be thankful for his dedication and the love that he has for his patients and their families. I just simply can’t put into words how thankful I am to have been his patient with all three of my pregnancies and to have him for advice during my battle with stage III colon cancer while raising three precious little girls who at the time were 4 and under. He is a big part of the reason that I am now a five-year cancer survivor as of last week.
Jennifer Nunnally Hux
Dr. Wolanski delivered both of our daughters, Delaney in June 2002 and Kaylan in September 2005. We were stationed overseas in Germany in 2005. He is an amazing doctor and I knew without a doubt I would return stateside during the last trimester so he could deliver my second daughter. We scheduled the whole thing well in advance. He stayed in touch and updated with my German doctor throughout the entire difficult pregnancy.
Heather and Chip Eubank
[Here is a] photo of my third child, Brayden, delivered by Dr. Wolanski. It was the first time I was able to hold him as I suffered a rare, and most often fatal to the mother and child, complication. I had an amniotic fluid embolism—the first that [Dr. Wolanski] had seen in his career. His fast thinking and research saved our lives. I owe the man so much words cannot express.
Dr. Wolanski delivered my last three babies recently. He is such a wonderful man and doctor! I told him since he was retiring from delivering babies, I guess I should stop too 🙂
Leigh Stisser, mother of Lucy, Charly and Jack
In April, Jeanie Donnelly and her daughter, Corey Pedersen, were celebrating Pedersen’s pregnancy at a baby shower at the Forest Lakes North Pavilion. Donnelly says people were mistakenly walking into the room all day, some looking for an event in the building next door. The family, along with Pedersen’s twin sister, Casey, were in for a surprise when Dr. Edward Wolanski randomly walked into the room. The family snapped a picture with the doctor who had delivered the twins two decades before.
Says Pedersen: “I distinctly remember my mother starting her sentence with, ‘There’s no way you remember me, but…” And he quickly responded with, ‘I sure do…’
“It really takes a special human to remember someone out of thousands almost 25 years later. He wasn’t supposed to be at me and my twin sister Casey’s birth, but he was, and without him all three of us wouldn’t be here today. I am so thankful for him and so happy to have finally met the man who has allowed all of us to be with each other all these years. And, to top it off, on the day we were celebrating my pregnancy and my husband’s and my son coming to join us so very soon.”