By Andrea Merrill
In residency, we had a nightly event called “9 o’clock meal”. Born out of a former surgery resident threatening to expose our measly salary to the local newspaper, every night at 9 o’clock, the hospital cafeteria served free leftovers to the in house residents. I tried to make it to “9 o’clock meal” whenever I worked overnight, but it definitely wasn’t the food that drew me (think instant mashed potatoes, reheated fish, mystery meat, etc.). What I went for was the camaraderie it built amongst my co-residents and, if I was lucky, the stories my chief residents sometimes regaled us with of their early failures and mistakes. As a struggling and insecure intern, I clung to these stories as proof that maybe I, too, could make it through general surgery training. In my darkest moments, those stories were what I often turned to for comfort. This year’s Michigan Women’s Surgery Collaborative conference was my updated and much needed “9 o’clock meal”.
I had attended the first annual conference last year and left inspired and energized. I had eagerly awaited this year’s conference and was looking forward to the new sessions this year. However, as this year’s conference approached, I experienced some difficulties in my personal life that caused my enthusiasm for the conference to dwindle. The theme of the conference was “Leading from your best self” and was focused on crafting your CV, cover letter, and elevator pitch to find your ideal job. Given my personal struggles, I admit I felt a bit lost and it was hard for me to self-reflect and critically think about what I wanted in a job (which as a first year surgical oncology fellow I realize is fast approaching). Additionally, I didn’t even feel close to my normal self, how could I try to be my best self?
But I made myself go. And it was inspirational and chalk full of great talks by the “who’s who” of women surgeons, but my heart wasn’t really in it to begin with. The main conference kicked off with a keynote speech by Dr. Reshma Jagsi (@reshmajagsi), a physician and researcher I’ve looked up to for a long time, who talked about the pipeline problem for women in surgery, inequity in promotion and funding, and sexual harassment. Next Drs. Julie Ann Sosa (@Jasosamd), Barbara Bass (@ACSPastPrez98 ), and Mary Hawn (@maryhawn ) gave a series of talks on various aspects of negotiating along your career path. The day ended with a networking event where I had a chance to meet some of my role models like Dr. Julie Ann Sosa who is such a down-to-earth and overall awesome person, aside from being a badass surgeon and Chair of Surgery at UCSF. The following day was run by physician and executive coach, Janet Dombrowski (@JCDAdvisors), as she helped lead us through exercises to craft our CVs, cover letters, and “elevator pitches” which was interspersed with talks by Drs. Julie Freischlag (@jfreischlag), Sandra Wong (@sandralwong), Andrea Hayes-Jordan, and Rebecca Minter (@minterwiscsurg). While these talks and exercises were excellent and highly valuable, what inspired me and really brought me back to my senses was the last session called “Making Lemonade”, or an updated version of the “9 o’clock meal” of my residency.
While I had heard stories of adversity and triumph from women surgeons previously, it had never been this raw and honest. All featured speakers shared a hardship they had encountered along the ladder to success and how they overcame it. The 2 stories that stuck out to me were those of Dr. Minter and Dr. Freischlag and I think many women can identify and find comfort in their stories and journeys.
Many know that Dr. Minter attended the University of Southwestern Texas for medical school and then finished her general surgery residency at the University of Florida College of Medicine. However, what most do not know is her journey between them. Dr. Minter shared with us that during her 4th year of medical school, she was going through some difficult personal and family situations that, unfortunately, affected her professional performance. She admitted that she should have asked for help at this time, but she forged on ahead with applications and interviews on her own. When match day came, she opened her envelope to find out she had not matched. She was fortunate to get a preliminary spot at the University of Florida, and eventually, with help this time, this turned into a categorical position at the same institution. She is now a highly regarded hepatopancreaticobiliary surgeon and one of the few female chairs of surgery in the country and has made it a point to “pay it forward” by helping other unmatched preliminary residents navigate this difficult situation to a future successful career.
As a woman who has truly paved the way for women surgeons in this country, Dr. Freischlag, the CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, certainly has many stories of adversity along her road to success. I have heard some of them before, but never one so personal as the one she shared with us this conference. Early in her career as a vascular surgeon at UCLA, her first husband became unhappy that she was so busy and either wanted her to quit surgery, or get a divorce. She actually contemplated quitting surgery but a mentor stopped her, telling her that surgery was her identity and she couldn’t just stop to save her marriage. She admitted that she “felt like a total failure”, that she had failed “work-life balance” which wasn’t really even a concept back then. She thought that she had failed at this perfect image of herself and that she had let down her female trainees that looked up to her. But then with the help of her mentor she realized, “Ok I’m a surgeon, just cut it out and start over”. She then moved to Milwaukee where she joined the surgery faculty and a dating service (which consisted of videos you had to create and watch in person back then) and clearly has had an extremely successful surgical career. It’s hard to believe that someone as successful, as confident, and as powerful as Dr. Freischlag, ever doubted herself (or that she scored a 203 on Step 1!).
People, especially women, think we need to be seen as “perfect” all the time. We think we always need to be “on” and that it is a weakness to show faults, mistakes, failures, and emotions. Listening to these incredible women’s stories helped me realize that is ok, maybe it is even good, to stumble along the way and not be perfect. When we are always and only putting our best foot forward, it makes others think that they are not allowed to fail or make mistakes. I will be forever grateful to these amazing women for sharing their stories and vulnerabilities with us. It was so special to experience in person and I hope these stories help other young women navigating their surgical careers.
Am I my best self now? Not quite yet. Will I get there? I have more hope now after listening to these amazing trailblazers in surgery.
Dr. Andrea Merrill is a surgical oncology fellow at the James Cancer Hospital at The Ohio State University. She completed her general surgery residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. During her residency she did a year of breast surgery outcomes research followed by a yearlong editorial fellowship at the New England Journal of Medicine. She plans to focus her career in breast and endocrine surgery and has a research interest in gender bias in surgery.
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