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Courtney Stephenson: From handsprings to medical innovations

Dr. Courtney (Cook) Stephenson uses lessons learned as a student-athlete who competed in gymnastics to break new ground in maternal-fetal medicine.

Biography

Courtney (Cook) Stephenson
Physician / maternal fetal surgeon

Hometown: Fairfield, Connecticut

Current City: Charlotte, North Carolina

School: Bachelor of Science in pre-medicine from Fairfield University, 1993; Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree from New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, 1997

Sport: Gymnastics

Fun fact:  As the mother to George (age 15) and Julianna (12), Stephenson is a self-professed adrenaline junkie who enjoys skiing, fast cars and roller coasters.

As a former student-athlete and now a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, Dr. Courtney (Cook) Stephenson knows the value of dedicating herself to a greater goal.

Stephenson was born and raised in Fairfield, Connecticut, in a close-knit family. Her father has worked as an athletics director for several universities, while her mother enjoyed a 20-year career in public relations, marketing and real estate asset management. Stephenson grew up idolizing her older brother, Christopher, who died last year from throat cancer.

“I was his little shadow,” she said. “He was my rock. He lived in a very balanced, peaceful way, which helped to ground me. He was the person I turned to when I needed perspective, and was always a voice of reason.”

Family influenced Stephenson in other positive ways. Her grandmother, Mafalda Gigliotti, now 98 years old, taught Stephenson how to do her first cartwheel at age 5, setting in motion her passion for gymnastics.

“I was the kid who climbed on everything, and would jump from the highest surface I could find,” she recalled. “My parents put me in the gym to channel this energy, and I never stopped.”

At an early age, Stephenson had intentions of becoming a physical therapist, due in no small part to her exposure to the profession as a student-athlete.

“I was so appreciative of everything my therapists did to keep me in the gym while I was competing,” she said.

In high school, Stephenson was a cheerleader, which afforded her the opportunity to practice back handsprings across the basketball court. However, she dropped out after one season for fear of injury.

Following her high school graduation, Stephenson attended Southern Connecticut State University for two years, where she was a force in NCAA Division II gymnastics. In 1991, Stephenson was named the Eastern College Athletic Conference Athlete of the Year and a United States Gymnastics Federation All-American. All told, she earned eight All-America titles and a national bronze medal on the balance beam during her student-athlete career.

“My schedule was all very disciplined,” she said.  “I had to have my classes completed before 2 p.m. when practice started, and I learned to plan weeks ahead for long-term projects or assignments. I did gymnastics about 30 hours a week during the school year, and all my vacations and summers were spent training. There was not much time for other activities.

It seemed Stephenson’s course for the future was set, but when a professor encouraged her to consider medical school during a summer anatomy class, she transferred to Fairfield University, leaving gymnastics behind and channeling her focus into a new career direction.

With her Bachelor of Science degree in hand, Stephenson went on to earn a medical degree from the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, followed by an obstetrics and gynecology residency at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn and a maternal-fetal medicine fellowship at New York University School of Medicine.

In 2004, Stephenson moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to become a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the Carolinas Medical Center. Also, she sought additional training at the Fetal Care Center of Cincinnati, and in 2010, she opened the Charlotte Fetal Care Center.

Just as she distinguished herself in gymnastics, Stephenson has proven to be a leader within the field of maternal-fetal medicine. She was the first doctor in the world to treat a condition called twin reversed arterial perfusion sequence — known as TRAP — with a microwave antenna, a groundbreaking surgery performed on at-risk babies while they’re still in utero.

“I’m also very proud of our center for our success in treating twin-twin transfusion syndrome,” she said. “We’re one of fewer than 20 centers in the United States offering fetal surgery for this condition.”

Stephenson credits her student-athlete experience with instilling the values of perseverance and focus, qualities that continue to serve her well.

“As an athlete, you can only control your own performance,” she said. “Watching others or comparing yourself to them will only create distraction and undermine your confidence. Even if you’re unsuccessful, it’s not a failure unless you waste the opportunity to learn from it.”

Which is exactly what Stephenson urges today’s class of student-athletes to do.

“Success is in the process,” she said. “You’re a winner when you show up every day and work hard. Leave no room for luck. If it doesn’t lead you to where you want to be after all that, then you can be at peace knowing you gave it your all.”

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