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What It Means to Research, Practice, and Teach
By Cheryl K. Zogg, MSPH, MHS
In being asked to write a Mentor Spotlight for the Association of Women Surgeons as a medical student, it is my extreme pleasure to be able to share some of the advice, experience, and wisdom of two incredible female surgeons whom I have had the honor of calling my mentors: Dr. Kimberly A. Davis and Dr. Anees B. Chagpar.
Q: What advice do you have for students interested in surgery?
Dr. Davis: Go for it! Surgery is an awesome career with amazing rewards: grateful patients, phenomenal job satisfaction, and a career that never gets old.
Dr. Chagpar: Five pieces of advice:
- Go for it! If you love surgery, you should totally go for it. Don’t listen to the naysayers—the people who say that you can’t be a surgeon and [fill in the blank here] (a girl, a parent, a researcher, etc.). That’s all hogwash! Surgery is a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding.
- There may be times when life gets tough, when you get knocked down. Don’t sweat it. That’s life. Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and keep going. Always keep your chin up, and keep going!
- Find good mentors. They are the people out there who care about you and want you to succeed. Let them help and guide you. Say thank you.
- Call your mom. A good mentor of mine told me that, and it’s good advice.
- Make sure that you take care of you. Go to the gym, eat right, go to church, take up a hobby, travel—whatever it is that recharges your battery, do that.
Q: What advice do you have for students applying for surgical residency?
Dr. Davis: Talk to the current residents and assess their collegiality. These are people who will become your family. You will spend more time with them than almost anyone else during your training. You need to identify a group that you feel comfortable with, as it will make residency so much easier and more enjoyable.
Dr. Chagpar: When you’re looking at residencies, look for fit. Where do people treat their residents well? Where do residents succeed (especially in getting to become the kind of surgeon that you want to be)? What kind of mentorship is there? Do the other residents there seem happy, like they get along and are having a good time? Think about whether you want to get another degree, have an international experience, or time in the lab—and, if you want an experience like that, ask if they have it. Ask how their residents do on board exams.
In terms of getting the residency of your dreams, think about how to optimize your chances. How can you make your CV look better? Do research, publish, present your data at national meetings. Do an away rotation at the place that you want to go to—the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Get good letters of recommendation. Talk to the Chair, the Program Director etc. Also, find people who know people. Is there someone at your institution who knows the Program Director of the program you want to go to who can pick up the phone and gush about you? If so, find that person and get them to do that for you. Do well on the STEP exams—sorry, numbers count. Oh, and be nice when you go to interview—to everyone, all the time. Know stuff about the place and why you want to go there. Wear a suit. Smile. That’s it. Be yourself. Remember, it’s about finding the right fit. They’ve got to like you, but you’ve got to like them too.
Q: What made you decide to go into surgery, your specific surgical specialty?
Dr. Davis: I liked the fact that surgery allowed a direct intervention for curative effect. I also liked that in order to be a good surgeon, I had to have a strong understanding of many of the medical fields. This is particularly important in the field of surgical critical care, where we understand and manage the pathophysiology of the surgical disease concurrently with the management of the patient’s underlying comorbidities. I like trauma and emergency general surgery because we are able to rescue a patient and their family at a time of great stress and return them to a normal functional existence. I also like the variety of cases that I am able to perform within my chosen specialty.”
Dr. Chagpar: I loved surgery. I loved it even before I had really experienced it. It just fit with my personality. I liked the idea that you could meet patients at a point where they had a critical problem and fix it. I liked the tangibility of the results and the immediate gratification this brings. I like the idea of working with my hands and with my brain. I loved the relationship that you have with patients and am incredibly humbled and honored by the trust that patients put into their surgeon.
As for why I went into breast surgical oncology, again, I just loved everything about it. I love the fact that you find patients when their world has just been turned upside down with a cancer diagnosis and make it better. I love the fact that you get to work with a multidisciplinary team, both in and out of the OR. I love the cases themselves that are both cosmetic and meaningful. The cases are not too short, not too long; tend to be clean; and don’t happen in the middle of the night. I love the fact that the research moves so quickly in breast cancer and that the standard of care is rapidly evolving. Because breast cancer has the benefit of so many strong advocates behind it, the field tends to be better funded than other orphan diseases, and finally, I love that the outcomes are so great! As a breast cancer surgeon, you actually get to make a huge positive difference in people’s lives.
Q: What mentors have you had? How have they influenced your career and life decisions?
Dr. Davis: Most of my mentors have been male surgeons who have offered excellent guidance and advice as to how to successfully navigate an academic surgical career. I do not think that the gender of the mentor matters, rather that they exist, are supportive, and provide good counsel. Recently, I have had the opportunity to know several senior women surgeons, several of whom are chairs and/or deans. Their advice, learned from their own mistakes, has been invaluable to me. I am grateful for their friendship and support.
Dr. Chagpar: I’ve had the most amazing mentors ever. These are people who have stood by me, opened doors for me, supported me, and cheered me on. They’re still my mentors. They’re the people you look up to and want to emulate—some of them are non-surgeons, and most of them are men (but they’re all fabulous people).
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Q: What does a ‘day in your life’ look like as a female surgeon?
Dr. Davis: I think that it looks quite similar to the day in the life of a male surgeon. I see patients, make decisions as to the appropriateness of a surgical intervention, perform the case, and deal with the postoperative management of the patient. Earlier in my career, I spent more time doing elective surgeries and seeing patients in clinic. Now, I spend time mentoring trainees and my junior faculty in career development. As I have matured in my career, I find the opportunities to educate and mentor to be at least as rewarding, if not more so, than the practice of surgery, which is why I continue to be a surgical educator.
Dr. Chagpar: My life is rather simple and is not likely reflective of many of the other amazing female surgeons you’ll meet who have to balance work, family, etc. A day in my life starts at 5:30 am or so. I get to the hospital by 7 am, put in a full day—whether in clinic, the OR, teaching students, administrative meetings, recording the radio show, or whatever else happens to be on tap for the day—then, I try to get to the gym for a class (kickboxing on Mondays, Zumba on Tuesdays-Thursdays), or go to church (on Fridays), go grocery shopping after that (if needed), get home, watch the news, fall asleep. Somewhere in there, I answer emails, do EPIC, etc. On the weekends, I try to get to the gym, maybe add in a hike, get some research done, and call my mom.
Q: What, if any, obstacles have you faced as a female surgeon?
Dr. Davis: The obstacles faced by women surgeons are varied. When I was a resident, women surgeons were less accepted than they are now, when I think female surgeons are considered more ‘main stream.’ However, obstacles persist: there are significant gender disparities in academic rank, in earnings, and in the ability to advance in academic institutions. Although there are more female chairs of surgery now than in any other time in history, their numbers are still very much in the minority. For more insight into obstacles, I encourage you to watch Caprice Greenburg’s Presidential Address to the Association of Academic Surgeons entitled “Sticky Floors and Glass Ceilings” which is an extremely thoughtful commentary on the status of women in surgery.
Dr. Chagpar: I don’t think I’ve had a lot of obstacles as a female surgeon. I suppose sometimes you need to prove yourself a bit more when you’re a girl, but that’s ok. I can do it! Thankfully, I’ve had good mentors, some cool opportunities, and a lot of luck along the way.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like us to know?
Dr. Davis: Surgery is the best career in medicine, and I feel very fortunate to be able to be a part of the surgical community.
In the words of Dr. Davis and Dr. Chagpar, “Go for it!” I would like to thank AWS for the opportunity to recognize these two amazing women and the contributions that they both continue to make to the practice of surgery and their respective subfields. Dr. Davis and Dr. Chagpar, thank you for taking the time to speak with us and for all that you do for your students, colleagues, mentees, and patients.
Dr. Davis is graduate of Yale University and Albany Medical College. She completed her Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) in Healthcare Leadership at Yale School of Management and her residency and advanced training in Surgical Critical Care Medicine at Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital and the University of Tennessee. She is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha and currently serves as a Professor of Surgery and the Vice Chairman for Clinical Affairs in the Department of Surgery at Yale School of Medicine where she is also the Chief of the Section of General Surgery, Trauma, and Surgical Critical Care as well as the Trauma Medical Director for Yale New Haven Hospital, a Level I adult and pediatric trauma center.
Among Dr. Davis’s many career achievements, she has served as a Surgeon Champion for the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program, Region I Chief of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma and as a member of the ACS Board of Governors, President of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma, and an Acute Care Surgery Manager-at-Large on the Board of Managers at the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma. She has published extensively on topics related to performance improvement and quality, inflammation and sepsis, and trauma resuscitation. She is an editorial board member for the Journal of Trauma, Injury and Infection, and the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation and an associate editor for the Journal of Trauma Surgery and Acute Care Open—all while somehow always making time for students in her research, mentorship, and, clinically, in the ED and OR.
Known for her charismatic smile and endless willingness to help no matter how small or large the question, Dr. Chagpar is a graduate of the University of Alberta. She completed her general surgery residency and MSc at the University of Saskatchewan and has since gone on to complete additional graduate-level training in public health (MPH) at Harvard University School of Public Health, bioethics and medical humanities (MA) at the University of Louisville, and business administration (MBA) at Yale School of Management.
Dr. Chagpar was a Susan G. Komen Interdisciplinary Breast Fellow at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and currently practices as an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery at Yale School of Medicine while serving as the Assistant Director for Global Oncology at the Yale Comprehensive Cancer Center. She built the first nationally-accredited breast center in Kentucky at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center and, since coming to Yale in 2010, has led efforts to make Yale the first National Cancer Institute designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Northeast with a nationally-accredited breast center. In addition to her clinical practice as a surgical oncologist, Dr. Chagpar actively participates in investigator-initiated and cooperative group clinical trials and in translational and clinical research which has been published in numerous journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine. She is the Breast Surgery Section Editor of UpToDate and a passionate advocate for global health and leadership in academic medicine.
Many thanks also go out to the other student co-leaders of the Yale Chapter of AWS for their invaluable help in organizing this interview: Juliana Lawrence, Maryam Ige, and Nida Naushad.
Cheryl K. Zogg, MSPH, MHS, is a second-year MD-PhD student at Yale School of Medicine (Yale School of Public Health) and a health law fellow at Yale Law School. She is a surgical health services researcher whose primary interests lie in the intersection of health policy and quality as it pertains to outcomes of surgical patients and differential access to care. Cheryl is a student co-leader of the Yale Chapter of AWS and an aspiring surgeon. firstname.lastname@example.org (@CherylZogg)
Conversation with Caprice Greenberg
Stephanie Bonne, MD and Heather Yeo, MD, MHS
At this year’s Academic Surgical Congress, the Association of Women Surgeons presence was felt with many of those from our organization in attendance and several members of our leadership present. We were especially inspired to see that the current presidents and president-elects of both organizations that make up the Academic Surgical Congress, (The Association for Academic Surgery and the Society of University Surgeons) are all women. Congratulations to Caprice Greenberg, Rebecca Sippel, Rebecca Minter and Taylor Riall.
This year, Dr. Caprice Greenberg chose to give her AAS presidential address on gender discrimination and pay parity. We sat down for a few minutes at the AAS with Dr. Greenberg to discuss the inspiration for her talk and what she learned as she prepared for it.
What inspired Dr. Greenberg to give her Presidential address about Gender in Surgery?
When talking to Dr. Greenberg about her vision for this talk, she said she started thinking about it over a year ago. She has seen a problem in the difference in the way women surgeons are treated, and wanted to understand this from a scientific perspective. She was interested in figuring out ways to personalize the workforce because “one size fits all” just doesn’t work. Because of the AAS focus on research and data science, she began to look closely at the data to help her guide the talk.
We asked Dr. Greenberg about her experiences with Gender Biases throughout her career:
She explained that after she met Dr. Jacob Greenberg, her husband, who was a junior resident when she was a chief, they used to compare notes after work. This provided her with a ‘reality check”. She noticed that she had a harder time when asking nurses to do something for a patient. Rather than simply asking, she would spend valuable time making friendly chit-cat and then sneak in a “favor” at the end. Jacob could simply ask the nurses for what needed to be done, sometimes leaving a mess after seeing a patient or performing a procedure, without complaints from the staff. Patients on one service that she and Jacob rotated on together thought he was the doctor and she was a nurse, even though she was his senior resident. They would look to him for a response and he would direct them to her as the chief. This served as a reality check for her.
Caprice considers herself lucky, after the birth of their first daughter. Circumstances were such that she went back to work, but Jacob was able to take 5 weeks paternity leave. His few weeks of being a stay at home dad helped level the playing field and helped set the tone for their subsequent relationship and the way they have framed the balance of responsibilities in their lives.
What did she find out while researching gender issues in Surgery?
During her research for her Presidential Address, Dr. Greenberg found that at all levels of the “pipeline” there are problems for women. There are fewer women going into surgery from medical school. Survey data suggests that women often do not see a surgical career as compatible with family life. Additionally, women who drop out during training or as practicing surgeons at the end of the pipeline women are more burned out.
Women earn fewer grants, and when they do get a grant, they get smaller amounts.
Women are punished for speaking up, we are often judged as “bossy” if when expressing ideas and this.
Women earn less than men. Women tend to choose specialties that reimburse poorly. Two of the worst paying specialties, breast surgery and obstetrics and gynecology are the specialties that are most dominated by women.
Women are less likely to be promoted and when they are promoted they are less likely to get an raise associated with the promotion.
In her life, the Dr. Greenberg feels very lucky to have her husband as a very active partner. He does all the cooking and financial management for the family and because she travels often. He is often the one home taking care of the kids. She also feels that the help she receives from her nanny, parents and in-laws have contributed to her success. She jokingly stated in one slide that “children don’t ruin careers….” And that picking the right partner and having collaboration on the home front is key to success in careers.
How can we as individuals or members or organizations change the needle?
More than just recognizing the problem of gender disparities in surgery, Caprice wanted to find more data and develop action items. She felt that part of the problem is that we are systematically addressing it the wrong way, by making it a women’s issue and not an issue that affects both genders.
There are several action items that Dr. Greenberg believes will level the playing field, which she highlighted in her talk
- Transparency is key, for salary and negotiations.
- Reviews and grants should be blinded.
- Mandated paternity leave to balance home responsibilities.
- Individually, we should aim to lift up others
- Continue to educate ourselves on pay parity
- Call out microagressions
Stephanie Bonne, MD is a trauma and critical care surgeon at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, New Jersey. She is the co-chair of the Association for Women Surgeons Communications Committee.
Heather Yeo, MD, MHS, is Assistant Professor of Surgery and Assistant Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College and Assistant Attending Surgeon at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She is board-certified in general surgery, colon and rectal surgery and complex general surgical oncology.
Dr. Marie Crandall’s Journey to a Surgical Career
By Barbara J. Williams
It was truly an honor to be asked to write a Mentor Spotlight for AWS. I only had one concern: I didn’t have a surgical mentor at the time and was unsure of whom to interview. Hilary McCrary, Chair of AWS National Medical Student Committee, suggested I interview an AWS council member, and in further research, I elected to spotlight Dr. Marie Crandall, whose passion for working with underrepresented populations in the communities she has served is truly inspiring. Dr. Crandall couldn’t have been more genuine, warm and patient during our conversation, a prime example of the AWS mission: To inspire, encourage, and enable women surgeons to realize their professional and personal goals.
Dr. Crandall is the Director of Research and Professor of Surgery at University of Florida, Jacksonville. She is originally from Detroit, MI, and obtained her Bachelor’s Degree in Neurobiology from U.C. Berkeley, medical degree from Charles R. Drew/UCLA, and finished her General Surgery residency at Rush University & Cook County Hospital. Dr. Crandall completed a Trauma & Surgical Critical Care Fellowship at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, WA, and obtained a Masters in Public Health from the University of Washington. Dr. Crandall has been a member of AWS since residency and has served on the Clinical Practice Committee, as committee chair, as an editor of the AWS/American Journal of Surgery, and she is currently serving a 3-year term as the AWS Liaison to the American College of Surgeons Women in Surgery Committee.
Life in Medical School:
BW: When did you know you wanted to be a surgeon?
Dr. C: “No one in my family was a MD so I had no idea of the different surgical specialties. I went into medical school interested in surgery, but didn’t like many of the surgeons I met or the work hour restrictions at the time. However, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I liked working with my hands and I liked the idea of saving some ones life with my hands. Having the opportunity to make a difference in life and death…having an immediate solution…making a difference right now was attractive to me. But I wasn’t really sure I made the right choice until residency. I liked medicine. I liked high-risk adolescent care. And as a Trauma surgeon, I can do all of those things PLUS surgery. Most times you are the first doctor that some patients see in many years, so in some respects you are like a primary physician for them.“
BW: What was your biggest challenge during medical school and how did you overcome it?
Dr. C: “I think it was really hard seeing kids my age and younger coming in shot, and not yet having the skills to intervene. I still felt very powerless. As the months went on, I began to appreciate how medical knowledge and skills build on themselves. We saved so many more people than we lost, and it was tremendously rewarding. So, it was basically time and persistence that helped overcome the challenge of sadness and loss.”
BW: What advice can you provide for medical students interested in surgery and those currently on their surgical rotations as MS3/4?
Dr. C: “Third year rotations allow you to gain exposure to all the fields and especially those that you don’t see yourself going into. You should approach each rotation with the goal of trying to get the most out of everything and remaining open minded… all rotations are valuable and you never know when/where those specific skills will be needed, no matter which specialty you decide on… You may find yourself stuck on an elevator in the hospital having to help deliver a baby…your experiences on L&D will definitely be of use to you. Then you need to determine what is important to you. Academic vs community programs? If it is research, there is a 1-3 year requirement at most academic institutions. It may be harder to carve out time in a community program.
I would tell 3rd and 4th years… Don’t forget the big picture. They have the talent and have been gifted with the intellectual ability to pursue a career… to use those talents to take care of patients. They will do well wherever they land and make it their own.”
BW: How did you first hear about AWS and how has AWS made a difference in your life?
Dr. C: “I actually learned about AWS fairly late. I don’t think I became a member until I was junior faculty. I had been an AMWA member, and actually helped co-found the UCLA chapter, but didn’t know about AWS until later. However, it has been vital to my career. In very few venues do you have the opportunity to have quality face time with such amazing, accomplished surgeons. Meeting Hilary Sanfey, Betsey Tuttle-Newhall, and other women surgeons in a collaborative, goal-directed capacity was extraordinary. And these women have become mentors, friends, and very valuable contacts in my career.”
BW: In your publication Barriers to advancement in academic surgery: views of senior residents and early career faculty, it was determined that residents sited lack of mentorship and childbearing twice as often as faculty members. Who are your role models and can you give an example of some of the best advice you have received from them?
Dr. C: “Dr. Susan Love was so genuine, funny and candid. As a resident, there were so many good surgeons at RUSH and Cook county. I had the opportunity to work with 3 female trauma surgeons who were all outstanding. – I had wonderful male mentors as well: my Chair at Rush, Dr. Richard Prinz; my first Chair as a new faculty member at Northwestern, Dr. Richard Bell. And I live by the quote, ”success is directly proportional to your ability to tolerate rejection,” told to me by Dr. Ronald Maier at University of Washington Harborview Medical Center.”
BW: How would you advice medical students/residents to find mentorship for their future career and personal life?
Dr. C: “I would tell them to be better at it than I was! Don’t be afraid to reach out. Find people you have something in common with (like AWS, or SBAS). And if there is a particular faculty member or resident that you trust, ask them for advice about your career, or even whom they might recommend to be a mentor.”
BW: How do you think completing your general surgery residency in Chicago, the third-most populous city in the USA, shaped your surgical career?
Dr. C: “Urban tertiary care hospitals with busy trauma centers are incredible places to train. You see a wide variety of pathology and have the advantage of working with many different surgeons. Chicago itself was a wonderful place to live – tremendous art and theater scene, great dining; it helps provide an education outside of education.”
BW: For residents, can you offer any advice on maintaining wellness during training to help reduce stress/burnout?
Dr. C: “Exercise, eat well and keep hydrated. Having family time is really important.”
As an Attending:
BW: What led to your development and involvement with Lowering Incidence of Violent Injury and Death (LIVID) during your time at NorthWestern?
Dr. C: “It was a hospital and community-based collective effort to help patients with gunshot injuries. The goal decreased the violence and retaliatory violence in Chicago. We received funding for the last 5 years and it has helped improve the divide between the community and their healthcare system.”
BW: What do you find rewarding and challenging as a surgeon/researcher?
Dr. C: “I feel like I am in a special point in my career. As director of research, I have the pleasure of helping residents get their work published and helping them see their work highlighted… no challenges, everything is rewarding.”
BW: Did your idea of what it meant to be a surgeon as a medical student align with your reality as a surgeon?
Dr. C: “It is so much better than I thought it would be! I was very afraid that being a surgeon would change me. And maybe it has, but it has made me a calmer, more pragmatic, more compassionate person. Having surgical skills and academic success have been wonderful; obviously it takes work, but it has been a tremendous path. I also think that for trainees, having a perhaps less-traditional person like myself as a role model has been encouraging.”
BW: How do you find balance with your personal life and have a successful surgical career?
Dr. C: “Attending time is much better than medical student or resident time. Don’t get me wrong, you generally work more than a 40 hour week, but the work is deeply fulfilling, and your free time is your own. I love to travel and exercise, and generally have no problem fitting those things in. I prioritize what is important to me, as you would do in any field.”
BW: Did you change any part of your personality to fit into the culture of surgery in general and specifically as a woman surgeon?
Dr. C: “You worked so many hours before work hour restriction…you tried to eat and sleep when you could. Being able to find that balance was hard. I heard of discrimination happening to a lot of women but I didn’t experience it. I was lucky. I picked a program that had taken women surgeons and that wasn’t malignant. It was the type of program where if you showed up and worked… that was what they expected. I didn’t feel that you were judged because you were female. Now I think it is different. It is not perfect, but I feel it is a kinder/friendlier environment and more cognizant of the need for gender equality.”
BW: What strides do you believe women surgeons have made and have yet to achieve?
Dr. C: “20 years ago surgical residency was 20% female and now it’s almost 50%…that difference is dramatic. We now have family leave policies….discussing the importance of breast pumping for mothers… discussing policy for sexual harassment. It is not perfect! Still need some work on pay equality, advancement, and retention rates for women. We need to think about the impact having a family has on a career…women vs men.”
BW: And how do you see the role of AWS in continuing the conversation about the need for more women in senior leadership roles?
Dr. C: “AWS was extremely helpful for me as the only person in my family to go into surgery. I didn’t have an understanding of the culture of surgery. As a fellow getting into academic surgery, I felt intimidated. There wasn’t a mass of women in academic surgery and that barrier has been broken because of AWS. But because of the small number, interacting with those that would later become chairs was a lot easier. AWS also provided national and international contacts for mentorship and support from other programs.”
BW: In light of the recent election season, can you please discuss your thoughts on the importance of surgeons being involved in politics and healthcare policy?
Dr. C: “If we don’t do it someone else will! In general, pay equality is important to every woman. The upcoming administration is going to lose ground on this. If that is important to you, you need to be active in local and national policy.”
I would like to thank Dr. Crandall for being so candid in discussing her journey. I hope it encourages those considering a career in surgery and motivate those currently pursuing the field. The culture of surgery is becoming more inclusive, but still needs some work on pay equality and the advancement of female surgeons. I look forward to being apart of the next generation of surgeons continuing to work together on this effort! ”Success is directly proportional to your ability to tolerate rejection.”
Barbara J. Williams is a third year medical student at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine and currently conducting clinical research in Cardiology. She is interested in pursuing a career in surgery and is passionate about working with underrepresented populations in the communities she will serve as a surgeon through research and philanthropic efforts. She is currently a member of the AWS/AJS publication committee and looking forward to continuing the mission of AWS throughout her future career.
AN INTERVIEW WITH Dr. Taylor S. Riall, MD, PhD, FACS
Simin Golestani and Hilary McCrary – Fourth Year Medical Students at the University of Arizona College of Medicine
As fourth year medical students who are beginning to make the leap from student to doctor, we found it important to reach out to those who could provide advice on how to practice mindfulness and avoid burnout in the years to come. Dr. Taylor Riall is an accomplished surgeon who focuses on hepatobiliary and pancreatic surgery, however, she is also a professional leadership and life coach as well. As the chief of surgical oncology at the University of Arizona, she teaches residents skills in the operating room as well as supporting them outside of it. All of these qualities make her an ideal person for the February edition of eConnections.
Visit Dr. Riall’s coaching website here for more information
Q: What made you choose a career in surgery, and why specifically hepatobiliary and surgical oncology?
When I went to medical school I really wasn’t interested in surgery – it just never crossed my mind. I knew I always wanted to be a doctor, but I was somewhat undecided on my career path. When I started my clinical rotations, my first rotation was OB/GYN. For whatever reason, I had a really bad experience on this rotation. I came out of the clerkship questioning if I should have become a doctor and if I made the wrong choice by going to medical school. I followed that rotation with pediatrics and had the opposite experience. I really enjoyed my pediatrics rotation, and they provided great direction on what I should be doing as a student. I thought I was going to be a pediatrician, but then I did my surgery rotation. I had planned to do my surgery rotation early, thinking that I will just get it over with. And I just loved surgery. I remember the first time I got to sew in the OR. It was in the middle of the night, and this man had a gun shot wound through and through his superficial femoral artery, and I got to close the skin on the leg. It was so exciting and at that moment I knew I really wanted to be a surgeon. And from that day on, I was really always focused on being a surgeon – I didn’t want to do anything else with my life at that point.
Becoming a hepatobiliary surgeon was really a function of what I was exposed to. I think its really good to be a specialist. And I remembered when I interviewed for fellowship that Dr. DeMeester said that you needed to be a specialist in one of the “10% diseases”. Every general surgeon knows how to take out an appendix and gallbladder, but it’s good to have a unique skill – something that not everyone can do. Plus, I was exposed to a lot of hepatobiliary surgery during residency. I did more Whipple procedures in residency than appendectomies, which is somewhat unusual. So it was mainly exposure. I like operating in the upper abdomen – its challenging and the anatomy is really beautiful.
Q: Do you feel that you encountered any extra challenges compared to your male colleagues?
Honestly, the answer is no. It never occurred to me that being a woman in surgery would be a problem and I just approached it in this way. I have had every opportunity and have been encouraged throughout my career by male and female mentors. I never want to be in something or achieve something because I am a woman – I want to do so because I am the most qualified person. I feel very comfortable as a woman in surgery and I also recognize that there are differences between men and women and certain things about being a woman in surgery that make it difficult. Sometimes people treat you differently, but its not always bad. Part of it is how you respond to it. Even when I had people questioning my decision to go into surgery, I learned how to respond to it. You can either be very offended or you can be confident in your decision.
Q: One unique thing about you is your involvement in personal coaching for residents and physicians. Can you tell us a little more about this?
For me, I got into coaching based on my own personal experience with burnout. In surgery, and medicine in general, our time course is very defined for us. We don’t have to have a vision or make major decisions for a long time, as we go from medical school, to residency, to fellowship, etc. As we go through these steps, somewhere along the way, its really easy to wake up and realize that you don’t even remember what you like to do. I didn’t even remember why I wanted to be a doctor. I thought about leaving medicine.
I then started my coaching program with the idea that I was going to help other doctors who also felt the effects of burnout. However, it really changed my life and perspective. I realized that nothing in your environment has to change, only the way you respond to it. My approach is to be very honest – honest about who I am and my shortcomings. At first I was very frightened about doing that, because it makes you very vulnerable, but I think that’s what makes people listen to my message.
I try to use these coaching skills in my position at the U of A and in my every day interactions. I have developed a program to teach these skills to residents. I love my program with the residents at the University of Arizona and we are collecting data to see how the residents perceive the coac