Heels of Steel, Hands of a Healer, Heart of a Mother

10 Oct 2023

By Dr. Smruti K Patel

7:30 am. 15 blade. Incision. Bovie. Bipolar. Number one Penfield. Drill. Irrigation. Suction. Bipolar. 11 blade. 7 suction. Bipolar. 

The words, the commands, they are automatic. The muscle memory of opening, turning a craniotomy, hemostasis, irrigation, closing – it is all automatic. From start to finish, before every surgery, I am prepared. I have played this out in my mind. What I need, what I want, what the anatomy is supposed to look like, what I’m supposed to do if something untoward happens, what all the possibilities are. These are what neurosurgeons’ dreams are made of. These are what our nightmares are made of. Some may say it is unhealthy. I say – for some of us, the night before surgery is the when I can close my eyes and see what I need my hands to do tomorrow. 

3:30 am – I hear the not so faint cry of my 5-month-old. Get up, warm a bottle, feed the bottle, pump, change the diaper, give the pacifier, put him down. The motions are automatic. The muscle memory of doing this the second time around – automatic. Children need to be kept on their schedule, feedings, nap times, bedtimes. When disarray occurs, when a nap is skipped, when a feeding is missed – these are what mom nightmares are made of. Sleep is a foreign concept when you’re a surgeon mom, as if it already wasn’t before becoming a mother. 

5:30 am – Get up, shower, look alive, put on some makeup, pick out an outfit, not a ragged pair of scrubs, a classic blouse, with pleated dress pants, a subtle but luxe belt and the most comfortable pair of Jimmy Choos. I stand tall, I stand confident, and I stand up to whoever may think I’m not deserving of every little thing that I’ve accomplished. And just before I leave the house, I peek at those amazing human beings I have created.

Sometimes I have flashbacks of my pregnancies – nearly passing out and the feeling of my body being on fire in the OR that I experienced for nearly 3 months because pregnancy hormones and hot operating rooms are not a great combination. I distinctly remember the discomfort of leaning against an OR table that was never quite right when I was doing the most technically challenging procedures, and the race between needing to close a wound and breaking scrub to run to the bathroom. Every minute, every ache and pain, everything about it was worth it.  

I have had many young women reach out to me about my neurosurgical journey and how I got here without “sacrificing” in other parts of my life. Make no mistake, compromises must be made, but the choices are entirely yours.  I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, mother of 2, AND a pediatric neurosurgeon. However, I don’t define any of these parts of my life as “perfect” because they are 100% not. I strive to always be my best, but there have been and will continue to be difficult days, where nothing seems to go the right way. On these days, I lean on my partners for advice, my family for support, and sometimes, all I need is a few minutes to myself to breathe, to reset, and to remember that tomorrow is another day. There is power in recognizing when to take a step back and revising your strategy to attack the next day. 

Every day, I wear my heels of steel with pride. I take my mind and hands of a healer to work. Whether it is a gentle touch over a child’s head, the motion of when the scalpel meets the skin, or the stroke of the cutting bur as it meets the skull, the responsibility of this life just became mine.I remind myself that I earned this privilege, and that there is a way to do it all. When asked would I do it all over again? The answer is 100%. 

This piece is for all the young women who have been told they can’t do or be more; the medical students and residents who are told they would be “crazy” to want children during training or in their career; the women who feel judged for leaving their personal life behind for their career or vice versa; the doctor moms who struggle with the work-life balance every day and are fighting to stay sane. There are so many of us that are right there with you. There is no “perfect” journey to and through motherhood in our profession, there is only your journey, and that’s the one that is most important. 

Smruti K Patel, MD is a pediatric neurosurgeon and Assistant Professor at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center / University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Dr. Patel earned her medical degree at Rutgers University, New Jersey Medical School in Newark. She completed neurosurgery residency at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, followed by a fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery at Cincinnati Children’s. 

Dr. Patel serves as the Director of the Pituitary and Skull Base Surgery Program at Cincinnati Children’s and as the Director of the Adult Neurosurgery Transitional Clinic at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute. In addition to her clinical practice in Cincinnati, she is an active participant in the community outreach specialty clinics located in Indiana and Kentucky. 

Dr. Patel is an active member of the AANS/CNS Joint section on Pediatric Neurological Surgery and serves as co- chair of the Timothy George Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in Pediatric Neurosurgery. She is also actively involved with the AWS as part of the Coaching Project and blog subcommittee. In 2022, she was named one of the Future Women Leaders in Neurosurgery by the CNS Foundation and highlighted as an AWS top 40 under 40. She is also one of the recipients of the 2023 AWS Breaking the Glass Ceiling Leadership Education Program Award. She serves as a mentor and sponsor to undergraduate and medical students interested in neurosurgery, as well as to both surgical and neurosurgical trainees. She is a loving wife and mother to two children, ages 5 and 2.

Twitter Handle: @SmrutiPatelMD
IG Handle: @thefiercefemaleneurosurgeon

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