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News & Press: eConnections

Mentor Spotlight: Dr. Kristalyn Gallagher

Friday, October 4, 2019  
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Photo: Dr. Kristalyn Gallagher pictured here with her mentee Dr. Apoorve Nayyar during 2019 Academic Surgical Congress in Houston, TX after presenting their multiple award winning study on sexual harassment among surgeons.

Dr. Kristalyn Gallagher is an Assistant Professor of Surgery in the University of North Carolina (UNC) Division of Surgical Oncology. She is the Section Chief of Breast Surgery and Surgical Director of the Breast Care Program. She received her Doctorate of Osteopathic Medicine from West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and completed her residency at Oklahoma State University Medical Center. She then went on to pursue a fellowship in Breast Oncology and Oncoplastics from the University of Arkansas.

Dr. Gallagher is the perfect example of someone who has dedicated their career not only to her patients but also to her peers and trainees. Trainees from all levels view her as an outstanding mentor. Although they may not be going into breast surgery or even surgery as a specialty, all say they have benefited greatly from her experience and sponsorship. Throughout her career, Dr. Gallagher has received awards and honors demonstrating her commitment to patients, education, and mentorship. These include but are not limited to the UNC Health Care and Faculty Physicians Award for Carolina Care Excellence in 2016, the Outstanding Medical Student Teaching Award in 2018, and the completion of the UNC Passing the Torch Academy of Educators Program in 2017. Her mentorship and guidance has also resulted in several research awards for medical students, residents, and fellows.

What inspired you to pursue a career in surgery and particularly breast surgical oncology?

I have always been fascinated by surgical anatomy and working with my hands. I enjoy being able to see a problem and then fix it. Surgery allows you to do just that. The decision for breast surgery was a personal one. My cousin is a BRCA [Breast Cancer gene] carrier and when I developed a breast mass in my early 20s, it was very concerning. Thankfully, the biopsy and excision were benign, but I can certainly relate to patients awaiting pathology results and the anxiety and fear that comes with not knowing. During my surgical residency, I knew I wanted to do a fellowship in breast specific surgery and debated between continuing with a surgical oncology versus a plastic surgery fellowship. I ultimately decided on a breast fellowship with an emphasis in oncoplastic surgery. For me, this was a perfect blend of what I wanted to be able to offer patients: the ability to perform a cancer operation, while combining plastic surgery techniques to preserve and restore the natural beauty of the breast.

What is your favorite part about taking care of patients with breast cancer?

Being able to help patients through this difficult time in their lives. No one wants to hear that they have cancer. I enjoy being able to help someone understand their diagnosis and walk them through their own personal journey. Many patients experience relief knowing that they do not have to do this alone. Once they have a treatment plan mapped out, it often helps alleviate some of the anxiety and fear of the unknown.

How has mentorship played a role in your surgical career?

I would not be here without the guidance of my mentors. Mentorship not only offers you guidance and support, but it opens doors along the way. It is a gift that keeps on giving.

Did you encounter any obstacles during your surgical training and if so how did you overcome them?

Residency was certainly challenging, especially when it came to grueling hours of floor work, rounds, endless hours of preparing for cases and clinics, and studying for exams. But then you also get to be in the OR and have an opportunity to make a difference in someone's life. Remembering why you are training is important. It also helps to make sure you take breaks and have something to do outside of work, whether that is spending time with family, exercising, or a favorite hobby. Taking time to refocus and relax will really help you get through the tough part.

What is your favorite part about mentoring students and trainees?

I love seeing trainees grow and accomplish their goals. It is so rewarding to see the hard work a trainee has put into a project that turns into a success.

How does mentoring others impact you?

One of my mentors, Dr. Suzanne Klimberg, has a favorite adage that she used to tell me: "Every day is a school day." It's true. I learn something new every day and it may come from a trainee. I think the mentor-mentee relationship works both ways. All research stems from someone asking a question. I encourage my students and trainees to ask questions and if we don't know the answer, we think about doing a project to find an answer.

What led you and Dr. Nayyar to pursue research on gender discrimination and sexual harassment?

This is an issue that is not uncommon in the healthcare system, especially in the surgical community. As a female faculty, I have had many conversations with other providers and trainees about these experiences and how it has impacted their career. Given there was little research that had been done in the surgical community, we thought it was important to address this subject in an objective, scientific manner and review the evidence on the current state of affairs.

What do the results signify and how will they impact the surgery community, particularly women surgeons?

We found that there is an alarming prevalence of unreported sexual harassment experienced by women in the US surgical community. In a national survey of 981 surgeons, 58% of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in the past year. 84% of the incidents were not reported to any institutional authority. The most common reasons cited for not reporting was "fear of negative impact on career," "fear of being dismissed and/or inaction towards perpetrator," and "fear of retribution." This demonstrates an urgent need to improve the safety of the healthcare workplace.

What are your future plans with this body of research?

We plan to continue exploring existing policies against sexual harassment and try to create meaningful culture change with a zero-tolerance surgical community. By networking with other leaders in the surgical community, we hope to create a platform to promote change.

What advice do you have for medical students interested in pursuing a surgical career?

Work hard, take time to recharge, and never stop asking questions!

by Jihane Jadi, a medical student at UNC and Dr. Apoorve Nayyar, a General Surgery PGY1 at the University of Iowa.