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News & Press: eConnections

Mentor Spotlight: Dr. Mary T. Killackey

Thursday, May 30, 2019  
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Mary Killackey, MD is the Robert & Viola Chair of Surgery and Associate Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at Tulane University Medical Center. She was recruited to New Orleans in 2006 to join the team of abdominal transplant surgeons and by 2009 was named the Director of the Pediatric and Adult Kidney Transplant Program. She also assumed Directorship of Pediatric Kidney Transplantation at the Children's Hospital of New Orleans. She was appointed Chair of Surgery in May of 2016 and since that time has successfully grown the department in all missions.

I consider myself very lucky to have gotten to know Dr. Killackey throughout my years at Tulane. Through our interactions, I have learned how thoughtful and welcoming she is and how committed she is to fostering an environment of respect and collaboration within the surgical department. She has been an incredible role model for me and many other students and residents. Her experiences and outlook are inspiring to not only women in surgery, but anyone looking to function at their highest ability and achieve their goals.

How and when did you decide you wanted to be a doctor? Did your gender play a role in this decision at all?

I always knew I wanted to be a doctor. I had an older cousin who had gone to medical school and become a surgeon, and she commanded this respect in our family that I had never seen other women receiving. I don't know how conscious it was, but it was very clear to me that I wanted that. I wanted to be in a position where I can command that type of respect. I also knew I wanted to be in a position where I could support myself and not have to rely on anyone else, which I guess there is a gender aspect to that too.

Also, I like people and science and that's what comes naturally to me. A big part of medicine that I was drawn to is the immediacy to the authentic relationship you can have on a daily basis. I was always impressed by patients' vulnerability and being intimate in a truly authentic way. And of course, the immediate gratification you get when you can diagnose something and see the outcome of your work very quickly.

What led you to a career in transplant surgery in particular?

I'm a big believer in listening to your gut. A mentor once told me, "In 20 years, you have to wake up and want to go to work. So, you have to do what you want to do, not what you think you should do." For me, I was always inspired by the people around me. When I was in residency, transplant surgery was starting to take off in popularity. It was right when living donor liver transplant became popular, and everyone around me was so excited about it, which I was attracted to. Also, there is a little part of me that wants to do something that no one else does. There weren't that many women in transplant back then, and that was a driving factor for me.

There's a lot of medicine in transplant surgery, and as someone who loves to continue learning, this attracted me to the field. Also, the experience is very team-based. I work daily with nephrologists, hepatologists, etc. as part of a true multidisciplinary team. Ultimately, I connected the most with transplant patients and their incredible stories.

When I was finally in my fellowship, the thing that kept me going was the fact that no woman had actually finished the two years there. There were moments when I thought I wanted to quit, but I would think, "if I don't finish this, it's going to hurt women."

When was the first time you felt a difference in the way you were treated as a female surgeon? How have you tackled these obstacles in the past?

It's harder to hide feelings in residency, so if you don't want to treat someone equally it's hard to hide that. I had an ongoing conflict with a lower-level resident during my residency who disrespected me on more than one occasion. After one particular conflict, it was really a moment for me personally when I realized, "I don't want to be like this." Things are going to happen that push your buttons, and the only choice you have is how you react to it, because that reaction can affect your life and your success. The best you can do is not fulfill the expectations other people have of you.

The most profound part of the experience, was that the day after the conflict, one of the older faculty surgeons took me aside and said, "you have a choice, you can walk into the room as a woman doctor or you can walk in as the best surgeon that you can be." This is something that has stuck with me for the rest of my career. If you see yourself in a lens that is other or different, then why wouldn't other people see that, and you will go on to interpret everything they do through that lens. If you truly believe you are equal, or the best surgeon, and that you are providing excellent care, that is all that really matters.

I struggled explaining this to people for a while, because I thought, "am I letting women down?" or "am I not acknowledging that there is a problem?" I do believe there is a disparity, but on an individual level, if you want to be successful, I think you have to make this decision of how you want others to view you. On some level, we have to take gender out of the equation, and we should all try to be the best surgeons.

Ultimately, I think we have to do something to change the language. When we have young women coming through medical school or residents and they see what people say about women surgeons, why would they want to go into that? Some of it is basic respect, but you also have to lead from the top and act as an example, and you have to call people out. You have to intentionally be professional and create an open conversation about it.

What does diversity mean to you?

We are always trying to have more diversity. When you are trying to get more people of color, more women in surgery, or more women in leadership roles, it is important to visually see that it is possible and set the example from within.

For me, of course race, ethnicity and gender are very important, but diversity of thought and personality is really essential. We need people who will approach things differently, people who will have new ideas, and will start new conversations. We are in the age that someone with a new communication style or thought process is part of the conversation now. When we conduct residency interviews, I have tried to remove the question of "Do they really fit with us?" If we keep picking people that are like us, we are just going to have mediocrity.

You are the Chair of the Department of Surgery at Tulane, a transplant surgeon, Director of the Pediatric and Adult Kidney transplant program, an active researcher, mentor, and a mom! How do you balance your personal and professional life? What is your secret to finding time for it all?

You can never really have a true balance and you can't control every aspect of your life. I do recognize that I have a situation that is quite unique - I think I'm the only chair that has young kids, and there is no way I could do this job without my husband. While being in leadership allows for a bit more control over my time, in reality, I've gotten a lot better at saying "No." I wanted to stay committed to the greater purpose, and it took some time for me to realize that I'm not letting people down if I'm saying no.

It's also important for women to recognize that things change. Sometimes its super intense at work for a year, but then you have a child, or a family member is ill, and you change your balance, you can switch your focus to your home life. Being comfortable with the fact that things are never going to be static is so important and this realization was really eye opening for me. We really do try to do it all.

What is a piece of advice you give to incoming residents as they are trying to improve their surgical skill?

Go to the OR. See as many cases as you can and scrub into as many as you can. Even if you are watching or a second-assist, asking questions or just being present is so helpful. I think for women in general, visibility is huge. You can't be afraid to show up and speak up.

If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

This is a hard question, because I wouldn't be who I am today without all of those experiences. But I think I would say, "chill out, have fun, and don't take everything so seriously." It took me a long time to realize that.

Elisa K. Atamian is currently a fourth year medical student at Tulane University in New Orleans. She is originally from New York, NY. After receiving her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Human Physiology at Boston University, she spent a year in NYC completing a research thesis at NYU which discussed DNA damage leading to infertility. Her specific interests include Plastic Surgery which led her to complete a summer Research Fellowship at NYU where she studied many aspects of facial transplantation. Elisa is currently the South Regional Representative on the AWS National Medical Student Committee. Follow her on Twitter @elisaatamian.