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News & Press: eConnections

Mentor Spotlight: Dr. Giselle Hamad

Tuesday, February 4, 2020  
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Dr. Giselle Hamad is a minimally invasive bariatric surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She received her undergraduate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She completed general surgery residency training at Medical College of Virginia Hospital, and completed a fellowship in minimally invasive surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Currently she serves as a Professor of Surgery, Director of Surgical Education, and Associate Residency Program Director. Recently, she has taken a position as Advisory Dean at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She also serves as the Governor-at-Large representing the Southwestern Pennsylvania Chapter of the American College of Surgeons.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in surgery?

I initially considered ophthalmology because I did some research with an ophthalmologist the summer after my first year in medical school. I was given the opportunity to shadow my mentors: I went to clinic with them; I went to the OR with them; I watched a lot of surgery. One day when I was in the OR, I found out that I was going to scrub in on a strabismus surgery. I had to learn how to scrub. I contaminated myself several times. I didn't know anything about sterile technique. But I got to hold the eyeball, and I thought that was the most incredible experience ever. So, I really immersed myself in ophthalmology for the following year. When I started my clinical rotations, my first rotation was ENT, and I suddenly saw a greater breadth than ophthalmology. I saw neck dissections, cancer operations, otology, and microscope surgery. I was really excited by what I saw in ENT. Every rotation for the following four months involved something surgical. My next rotation was anesthesia, which was in the OR, but it did not excite me as much because I was removed from the action. After that, I did my OB rotation, and I realized I felt very comfortable in the abdomen. When I finally did my general surgery clerkship, I felt like I was home.

You take on multiple roles as a surgeon, mother, mentor, teacher, PittMed's AWS faculty advisor, and now as an advisory dean for the medical school. I can imagine that when you take on a new role, you have to sacrifice another aspect of your life. What factors go into the decisions you have made to carefully shape your career?

It has to do with figuring out what fuels you, what gets you up in the morning. I think you have to find your passion and follow it. If you had told me 20 years ago that I was going to be an advisory dean, I would have never imagined it. I never thought that I could make a career out of sitting down and talking to people about their career goals. But over the past 20 years, little by little, I have been invited to give talks about surgery as a career, I have been meeting with more and more medical students, and I have been answering questions about what it means to have a career in surgery. This all started when one of my mentors sent a student to me. This student didn't know whether she wanted to pursue surgery because she was a mom and she was concerned about the lifestyle. After I spoke with her, my mentor sent me a few more students the next year, and more the year after. Now I meet with students hundreds of times each year. I discovered that I really enjoy it, that I could do it all day. I love hearing students' perspectives; I love helping them learn about themselves and find their identities as doctors (and hopefully as surgeons).

It's very gratifying. Many students will come to me not having any idea what they're going to do, and somehow they find their way after a little soul searching. I think a lot of career planning has to do with knowing who you are as a person, knowing what your goals are, and knowing what your priorities are. So, I don't feel I made sacrifices when I took this career direction towards education and mentoring. I feel that I was given an opportunity to find something that gets me up in the morning, something that excites me.

Have you ever had felt that being a female surgeon opened new doors or has been a barrier?

I never felt like being a woman was a barrier. I did not feel that I was prevented from doing what I wanted to do in my career. In the era during which I trained, I did feel that I was scrutinized. I felt that people were curious as to why I would want to pursue a career that involved working 120 hours per week. I would say that now as a woman in a faculty position at an academic medical center, I have an opportunity to promote women in surgery. It is a tremendous responsibility and a wonderful role, which I feel privileged to be able to carry out.

What gets your through your challenging days?

Interestingly, it is not the surgery itself that is the most challenging part of my career. If you get through a surgical residency, you will know how to take care of patients and you will know how to operate. The parts of my job I was not trained to do are the most challenging: insurance authorizations, bureaucracy, learning to navigate the electronic medical record, the metrics with which I am measured, billing and coding, and patient satisfaction. I did not have any exposure to these things as a medical student and as a resident, but they are vital to my career today.

What gets me through is exactly what we talked about before: being able to take care of patients, making people feel better, working in the operating room, being part of a team, and training residents and medical students. All of that is so gratifying and fulfilling that it gets me through those times I am frustrated with the EMR or the times I have to fight with insurance companies.

It is clear from your past experiences and accomplishments that you are passionate about mentorship. What goes into being a good mentor and what goes into being a good mentee?

We just recently had a book club meeting with the Department of Medicine. During that meeting, we talked about how being a mentor means learning how to listen. Sometimes people think that being a good mentor means you need to tell people what to do. But sometimes you just need to listen and help your mentee figure out what they want to do. You have to help them problem-solve rather than solve the problem for them.

One quality that I find makes a good mentee is open-mindedness. It's important to get your information from more than one person. It's also important to reflect on all your experiences. Reflection is one of the bigger components of learning, and it is highly underutilized. Sometimes mentees may feel awkward or hesitant to email a faculty member more than once if they don't get a reply right away. My advice to mentees is that some of these faculty members can get hundreds of emails every day. Inboxes can get very full, so don't feel discouraged. Try to reach out again if you hit a wall the first time.

You have alluded to this concept of resilience a few times. What additional qualities do you see in successful medical students bound for surgery and in surgical residents?

I direct the fourth year acting internship, so I read all these students' evaluations. There are certain phrases that consistently come up in excellent evaluations: "hard working," "takes initiative," "goes above and beyond," is a "team player," "communicates well," "organized," "attentive to detail," "meticulous," "works well," with office staff, OR staff, APPs, nurses, patients, and families, and "is compassionate." Having a strong knowledge base is important, but it is just as important to be teachable and open to constructive criticism.

Knowing what you know now, what would you say to your medical student self?

I should have sought out mentorship earlier. I didn't because I did not know how. I was able to find that ophthalmology practice after my first year, but I should have done more during my second year. I should have sought out different disciplines to expose myself to more fields. Even when I decided on surgery, I did not do enough to find mentors in the surgery department. That is what drives me now. That is what motivates me to serve as a mentor for students because I felt like I did not make use of that opportunity as a medical student.

So how do you know if a potential mentor will be right for you?

I think you should have different mentors for different roles and for different aspects of your career. At this medical school [and at many medical schools], you have a wonderful setup for research mentorship. It is a privilege to have guidance from people who are seasoned investigators and can help you understand the world of research. You may have clinical mentors who guide you in your clinical life. And there may be mentors who are not in your professional field at all, people who are life mentors. People who help you figure out work-life balance, how to raise a family, and how to have a life outside of the hospital, which is hard when you are really busy. It is hard to know who a good mentor is going to be, but I think it comes down to the chemistry. It takes two, and it requires both ends to be connected. Connection and communication are richer when you have more than one person involved in helping you shape your career because a career in medicine is such a complex process.

What advice do you have for women interested in surgery?

It is important to push forward with what you think you will be passionate about. Regardless of your gender, you have to do what you love. Many women will approach me with questions about the lifestyle associated with a surgical career. If you pursue a career solely based on lifestyle, you may end up disappointed or burnt out. There are many careers that can be excellent for lifestyle, but they may not be able to sustain you for the next 30-40 years. You have to do what you love and with the support of your family and friends, you will find a way to make it work. Raising a family is hard whether or not you have an "easy" lifestyle because it's a full-time job being at home too. If you are not happy, and you bring that home to your family, your family life will suffer. Even though I may spend many hours in the operating room, or I may be on call, or I need to come into the hospital at the middle of the night, I love what I do. I love coming to the hospital to make somebody feel better. There are days I come into the hospital save somebody's life. Yes, it sounds dramatic, but that is meaningful to me. The nature of our field is that people come to us, so sick that without an operation they will not survive. That is meaningful to me. So, in short, do what you love and you will figure out the rest.

Nallammai Muthiah is a second year medical student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She completed her undergraduate studies at Cornell University, focusing particularly on the neuroscience of human behavior. As the first in her family to complete education in the U.S. and to pursue a career in medicine, she has always had a great appreciation for mentorship. It was only after meeting Dr. Hamad when Nallammai saw first-hand that successful careers in surgery are personally-defined and can include pursuit of any passion. As a result of the opportunity to work closely alongside individuals as inspirational as Dr. Hamad, Nallammai plans to pursue a career in academic surgery. Outside of medicine, you will probably find Nallammai on long trail runs around Pittsburgh's beautiful (and noticeably hilly) landscape. Although she enjoys finding new routes, she realizes she occasionally gets lost and goes on far longer runs than intended.