UF physician assists transgender patients on the road to new lives
By Ferna Simbulan
In 2014, a graduate student at the University of Florida raised concerns about the need for better health care for transgender patients. In response, the UF Dean of Students Office — along with physicians, nurses, pharmacists and others — formed what was then called a “trans network.’
This group created and implemented a protocol that would enable the university to better serve those experiencing gender dysphoria, defined as a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he or she identifies.
Ann Grooms, M.D., was among the first to get involved. Grooms was a natural for a network to help transgender patients, having significantly contributed to the university’s efforts to expand services in areas such as sports medicine and eating disorders for nearly 40 years.
A clinical assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of community health and family medicine, Grooms has also served as a health care provider at the UF Student Health Care Center, or SHCC, and as a team physician for the University Athletic Association Her leadership in building a welcoming environment for transgender patients was recognized in 2018 when she was honored with the Diversity & Inclusion Award, a part of UF Human Resources’ Superior Accomplishment Awards.
While Grooms was grateful for the honor, she puts the focus on her patients. Since 2015, she has treated more than 40 patients who were just beginning their gender-transition process.
“It’s absolutely amazing to see the changes in people after two years of therapy,” she said. “To be able to offer someone a change in their life and to be able to support them regardless of whether they have family support is truly rewarding.’’
The protocol that Grooms helped develop is a holistic, multistep process that focuses on the person’s physical and psychological health during every stage of their transition. It begins with a counseling session, a crucial first step, she said, because patients often experience significant anxiety and depression as well as
complicated family issues.
The UF Counseling and Wellness Center offers sessions where patients can explore their gender identity and prepare for the challenges that they may experience during the coming out and transition processes. Patients most often provide a letter from a counselor acknowledging that they are ready for the next steps
So far this year, the center has seen 21 individuals who identified as transgender, and 49 who identify as something other than man or woman. During the 2017-18 academic year, the numbers were 23 individuals who identified as transgender and 31 as something other than man or woman.
At the SHCC, patients seeking to change their genders now have access to hormone therapy services. The health center also refers patients to other specialists for procedures not offered within UF’s facilities.
Grooms said there were some hurdles during the early stages of implementing the protocol. Among them was educating staff on how to interact with transgender patients. At the SHCC, for instance, the staff ensures that patients are addressed by their preferred names and gender.
“It takes a very sensitive staff to take care of these patients,’’ she said. “We feel that that has been well-accomplished.”
While the trans network did not continue after the protocol was successfully implemented in 2015, Grooms said there continues to be a focus on transgender patient care through the Presidential LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee at UF, of which she is a member.
Health support technician Hannah Armitage, who works with Grooms, said she is one of the most dedicated people she’s ever met. She said Grooms sometimes stays at the center late at night, calling patients, speaking with their families and contacting other people involved in the patient’s treatment.
“We get to see how Dr. Grooms makes the patients happier and excited to see who they are as people,” said Armitage. “Sometimes, it leaves us all speechless.”
At 77, Grooms continues to be active in treating patients.
“I’m working way beyond the time that most people would retire, but that’s because I like what I’m doing,” Grooms said. “I’m doing something that not a lot of other people have the same interest in, so I’m filling a niche that’s needed.”
Grooms credits her father, a physician himself, with helping her find her career path. “I grew up in an environment where people were thoughtful of others and looked to see what the need was,” she said.
This approach was evident when she moved to Florida from North Carolina in 1978. Her husband, a surgeon, had joined a private practice in Gainesville. Grooms’ training was in pediatric oncology, but the lack of openings in the area pushed her to pursue one of her other interests, adolescent medicine, at the SHCC.
While there has been significant progress, Grooms said much more needs to be done, starting in the classroom.
“Primary care physicians should be educated on transgender care,” she said. “It’s something that should be taught in medical schools and residencies.”
As for stigmas that some people still have about transgender patients, she said it’s time for attitudes to change.
“People are people, and all people deserve respect and consideration,’’ Grooms said. “Help them be whoever they want to be, as healthy as you can.”