More on Role Models in Surgery

As discussed in a previous post, role models for women need not necessarily be female to be inspirational to women. Here are some interesting quotes from men and women in surgery talking about female and male role models and who inspired them along their career path:

“Role models are really important but when I was trained there weren’t many women role models. The few women that had made it into surgery were really quite daunting characters and they weren’t necessarily inspirational. They were very committed to their jobs and they weren’t doing something I necessarily wanted to do, whereas there were an awful lot of men in surgery who were inspirational. They were very well balanced, they had a lot of interests, they were very intelligent, sensitive men – and they were role models at that time. And they were also the ones who were saying ‘look, there is no reason why you can’t do this’.”

“I think what you need is someone senior who takes you under their wings from a young age and says ‘we think that you can do this, we think you have the potential, we are interested in you as a neurosurgeon’. I had that in neurosurgery, so when I left my neurosurgical post to go to take up an ENT post they said ‘I don’t think you’re doing the right thing’ and they were right. And of course that is a huge influence. In fact, I think they had more influence than my parents did in terms of my future ultimate role. I didn’t have the opportunity to have female role models at this stage. There wasn’t another female neurosurgeon who I could ask about the practicality of running a life, having babies and being a neurosurgeon. But I had enough support from the male counterparts that I came across to know that wasn’t an insurmountable problem.”

“I have many female consultants in my department in Spain. I’m thinking of two of them because I really enjoy working with them. One of them is a breast surgeon and mother to two children and I’ve been operating with her during a long microsurgery with her pregnancy belly and it was really fun. She is really committed to her job and to her family. The other one is a lower limb surgeon and she performs the best surgeries I’ve seen. It’s a real pleasure to work with her.”

“I didn’t have any medics in my family to get the stories so surgery is something you see on TV and they’re always depicting men in surgery and then the women who are struggling to be at the same level as them. And then as a student I’d come to the hospital and I’d have my placements and every time in general surgery I’d see these old school surgeons and the top ones were always male. I hardly saw any females. My female role models came from elsewhere in medicine. Eventually I started reading about female surgeons out there. When I went to the Royal College of Surgeons to take my exams, there is this amazing mural on the wall in one of the rooms and it has all the female surgeons in the whole country who are eminent. And as cheesy as it sounds – I’d often look up to that mural in times when I just couldn’t revise anymore for my exams and I’d think ’one day I want my name to be up there’.”


Women Have What It Takes

As Surgery is still a largely male-dominated field, it might seem as if women do not ‘have what it takes’ to make it in this field. But the truth is that surgery is a very diverse field in which all kinds of skills and traits are needed – none of which are determined by the shape of one’s genitalia. So what are the characteristics required for working in Surgery? Here is what men and women working in this field think.

“There needs to be a cross-section of personality types because there are different sorts of operating and different sorts of operating suit different sorts of people. I was never going to be an orthopaedic surgeon. It was never the kind of operating that I enjoyed. It has less patient contact, I think. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but they have less patient contact, I think, and that suits them as personalities. It does need different horses for the different courses in Surgery.”

“You’ve got to have the mind to do it. You have to be able to concentrate for long periods of time. You’ve got to be organized and meticulous. You have to have a love for detail. You’ve got to be meticulous about every little thing because it all counts. Being female helps. I don’t want to be stereotypical, but you’ve got the empathic way and you relate to patients, you can ease them. Because when you’re doing surgery day-to-day you forget what a big deal it is for patients. You see patients going in and coming out of the theatre all the time but for them it’s the first time they stepped into a hospital and they are going to hear all these scare stories and it’s about them having faith in you as a caring physician. I think surgery is not about just getting and done ‘let’s whip it out, stitch them and close them up’. It’s the whole holistic approach. And I think being female has helped getting that holistic side into surgery.”

“On the technical side you have to be a good technician. You have to be technically very good and that’s independent [of gender]. Maybe because women have smaller hands and are more precise sometimes, they are better at doing fine surgery. But it depends very much on the character. On the personal side, I think most women have a lot of empathy. I’m not saying that most men don’t have a lot of empathy, but it’s probably a more female characteristic and it helps you do the job.”

“It’s not very feminine to play with hammers and drills and things and people suggest you need muscle power but that’s why there are machines. You can find a way to manipulate bones. The main thing is to know how to do it, not to have the muscle power.”

“We (women) have in spades what you need to do the job. We can team work, we can communicate, we have great manual dexterity. But what we bring to the table mostly is a lack of ego. It’s a view towards collaboration, it’s a view towards the patient: This is a patient, this is not about me; this is not about my private practice; this is not about me being the most successful or most powerful person in the world. And I think women are much more able to focus on that aspect of care – at least more readily. The blokes do it, but it takes them a little bit more of a journey to get there.”

The Best Things About Being a Surgeon

Surgery is a challenging career, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Here is what some women and men in surgery have to say about why it is so great to be surgeon:

“You’re changing lives. It is a real privilege. You get the opportunity to really engage with people at a really important point in their lives and to make a difference.”

“The smile on the patient’s face when you told them that you – well, not cured them of cancer – but that you had taken away that mass. I think you can’t do that in any other specialty other than surgery. You can’t fix something – of course there are medicines and drugs but they don’t give an instant fix. It’s so rewarding when you’ve done an operation and you’ve done it on your own. You’ve fixed that person. It’s brilliant. It’s a really good feeling.”

“I love how it’s different every day. You’re dealing not only with patients, I’m dealing with the parents as well as the children. It’s not a desk job. You’re working closely with physicians, the nursing staff in wards and theatres. What I love about it is that with surgery you have a direct effect on patients. Whatever you’re doing – you’re taking out that cancer, you’re repairing the hernia, you’re doing something with your own bare hands that helps that patient. … It’s fun, it’s practical. It’s intellectual and practical at the same time.”

“The best part of the job in my current specialty, which is orthopaedics, is that it’s such a team effort. Surgery in general is a team effort, especially in the operating room. It’s a flat system, there is no hierarchy. Anyone can make a call to say ‘oh, this is wrong’ or ‘you need to check this’, so it’s not a case of ‘the surgeon said it and that’s it’. … And also, there are a lot of people involved – Physiotherapists, nurses, occupational therapists – and it’s with the involvement of everyone, that team effort, that you achieve a save discharge for the patient.”

“It’s a wonderful live. It really is. It isn’t a job, it’s a life’s work – which is why I’m still doing it, even in retirement.”

Work-Life-Balance in Surgery

Maintaining a good work-life-balance can without doubt be challenging for surgeons. However, it might not be as hopeless as you think it is. Here is what some women in surgery have to say about the topic:

“The concern I had was about being a surgeon being all there is to your life and not being able to have anything outside of that. But that’s wrong. That’s a complete misconception. I have a great balance of life and work.”

“I think work-life-balance is very important. And I think a lot of people get it wrong. … I do karate, which is great and I drag the children along, so we pretend it’s family time but actually I enjoy it most, I think. And it’s nice living near where you work, so you don’t spend a lot of time commuting. That is very useful and I can also drop the children at school on my way to work certain days and that’s again very useful and family time.”

“I think is very important for you to be very honest and transparent about [work-life-balance]. I think you need to be very clear with your partner to what you can achieve and what you can do. The work we do is very intense, so the little time you spend with your family is very important. So I may not spend very much time with my husband, but the two days which I spend with him are very high quality time. We have very orgnised calenders. I know exactly what I’m doing for the next six months every weekend. Maybe that might freak some people out but I get to have the best time I have with my husband and that helps.”

“I used to do a lot of dancing throughout medical school. I was in the University dance team. I stopped that. I don’t really know why. But I recently started salsa dancing and I run. I set myself a target of doing the half marathon next year. I think because I’m revising for an exam at the moment as well – if I don’t do extra things, then I will go mad. So I spend time with my friends and my family. I have to do that, otherwise I’d fall apart.”