By Alyssa D. Brown, Morgan S. Levy, and Amelia G. Kelly
As many as 1 in 4 women physicians will be diagnosed with infertility. Unfortunately, this number is likely higher for those in surgical specialties. A variety of factors relating to the stressful lifestyle of medicine and medical training likely contributes to this high infertility rate. These factors include delayed childbearing, irregular work hours, and lack of partnership, among other reasons and factors. As more women continue to join medicine, and generally train as surgeons, infertility and family building are concerns that many will face. Even on this blog, multiple surgeons have shared their challenging journeys through infertility, egg freezing, and struggles with building a family.
In addition to challenges becoming pregnant, female surgeons face unique burdens once they achieve pregnancy. Recent studies have shown an increased risk of pregnancy complications and loss among surgeons, particularly when operating for more than 12 hours a week while pregnant. This paper also highlighted how postpartum, female surgeons are also more likely to have musculoskeletal disorders related to pregnancy and postpartum depression, adding to their overall maternal morbidity. Women in procedural specialties are also less likely to breastfeed, which is likely related to the demands of the surgical working environment.
In spite of the aforementioned challenges, family building and planning are rarely addressed in medical education at any level of training, especially in surgical specialties. For a long time, these subjects have been taboo within the medical community and even more so in male-dominated specialties. This pressure to keep family building topics out of the medical sphere ultimately leads to less open discussions and more burnout. To allay this pressure, many women will therefore get their information from peers, online support groups, or places like the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) Blog. As leaders in the American Medical Women’s Association Physician Fertility Initiative, we have listened to the stories of many women physicians who have experienced these journeys and are taking action to improve family building for women physicians.
Over the years, the AWS Blog has been an inspiring platform for women to share their powerful stories, including those about fertility preservation, infertility treatment, pregnancy, breast feeding, family building, and being a mother in surgery. This platform allows women surgeons to normalize the unique challenges that they face as women in surgery, including when trying to build a family. To promote the health and success of women in surgery, we must continue to have these conversations, both online and in the operating room. This will help to ultimately create a surgical practice environment that is more adaptable to childbearing. These changes will not only lead to healthier moms, but also encourage more women to pursue and feel welcome remaining in careers in surgery.
Alyssa Brown grew up in Chattanooga, TN. She went to Centre College for a B.S. in Biology and minor in History. She fell in love with surgery after seeing her mentor perform an anoplasty during the first year of medical school. She finished her third year of medical school in 2018 and wandered off the beaten path to get a PhD, before finishing her MD. She is receiving her MD degree from the University of Louisville School of Medicine, and her PhD in Biomedical Engineering and Physiology at Mayo Clinic School of Biomedical Sciences. Her thesis research is on diaphragm muscle mitochondrial function and morphology. She also participates in research projects focused on physician infertility, student mental health, and pediatric surgery. She has been a part of the AWS Blog Subcommittee and AWS Instagram Subcommittee for three years, and she has loved writing pieces for the blog over the past two years. During the pandemic, you will probably find her baking sweets and pastries that she saw on “Great British Bake-Off,” or embroidering. You can find her on Instagram @Alyssa_b_futuremdphd and on Twitter @Alyssa_B_MDPhD.
Morgan S. Levy is a second year MD and Master’s in Public Health Student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. She graduated from Lafayette College in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology, with a minor and honors in Psychology. Prior to medical school, Morgan served as an AmeriCorps member at Zufall Community Health Center. Her research interests include gender equity in medicine, infertility, and gynecologic cancers. She plans to pursue a career in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Morgan’s hobbies include kickboxing, cooking, reading, and hanging out with her cat, Kacey. Connect with Morgan on Twitter and Instagram @MorganSLevy
Amelia G. Kelly is a fourth year obstetrics and gynecology resident at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. She is planning on pursuing a fellowship in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility. She attended medical school at Weill Cornell Medical College She is the resident co-chair for the American Medical Women’s Association Fertility Committee. In her free time, she enjoys skiing, hiking, and jogging outside as well as spending time with friends and family.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.