Deborah L. Benzil, MD, FACs, FAANS
Vice President, American Association of Neurological Surgeons
MKMG and Columbia University Department of Neurosurgery
Tina Turner’s iconic song says:
So what do we do with our lives?
We leave only a mark
Will our story shine like a life
Or end in the dark? Is it all or nothing?
As a pioneer woman neurosurgeon, I strongly believe that the progress of women within medicine, particularly specialties where we remain under represented, requires us to move beyond heroes. Though we have already had to battle hard for ourselves, those who have made some progress may now be in a position to help others so their struggles are eased. To do this we must make a commitment with our lives, to make our stories shine. This is best accomplished by understanding the key concepts of:
- Sponsorship, and
- Role modeling (with some critical 21st century implications).
Mentor, recalled by Homer as the “wise and trusted counselor”, took care of the household while Odysseus was off fighting the Trojan Wars. From this ancient concept, modern organized mentoring has grown into an essential practice within many professional groups such as teachers, business executives, and more recently medicine (but not given nearly enough focus and attention). Mentoring is something we have talked about for a long time but don’t think we take seriously enough or do a good enough job when given the opportunity. The goal of a mentorship is to help the mentee become as good as they can be in the goals they develop for themselves. In this setting, the job of the mentor is to facilitate and steer that process using experience, contacts and critical assessment tools. A great mentor is easy to approach and makes themselves available. They will use and share experience and expertise as good listeners, observers and problem-solvers. We MUST remember that mentoring is more than just supporting and encouraging. It is applying all the skills to enable the mentee to reach their full potential. This can mean helping them recognize and fix their flaws and problems.
Sponsorship is equally important and must become part of one’s culture. In this realm, I look for every opportunity to publically recognize the talents and accomplishments of younger colleagues. Some examples of easily accomplished sponsorship include:
- Introductions: One can embellish a formal introduction with an honest, flattering comment. Example: “Dr. Department Chair, this is Dr. Rebecca Smith. She is an extremely talented senior resident at Univerisity of X very interested in functional neurosurgery and has already published two important clinical papers.”
- Reports: While delivering reports at Executive Board meetings or similar, always give public credit to the individual(s) who made significant contributions. Example: “The great work I am reporting on related to curriculum development was spearheaded by Dr. Judy Star who got significant support from the efforts of Dr. Jane Ray and Dr. Sam Steel”
- Comments: Look for every opportunity to sing the praises of worthy others in a public arena. Example: In the OR or surgeon’s lounge look for opportunities to say, “Suzie, you did a really great job on that extremely difficult case.”
No doubt the next generation(s) of physicians needs to see role models with whom they can relate but we play an equally important role in leading by example. One must always be professional, courteous, prepared, gracious but not afraid to call out behavior that is unacceptable. It is not only ok but necessary to ask individuals to refrain from offensive speech and behaviors in the office and operating room. You shouldn’t hesitate to quietly and discretely remind individuals about being late, sloppy or unprofessional. Be particularly mindful of modesty in the OR. Let everyone knows that you are also a wife/mother/daughter/sister or that you love to hike/run marathons/watch Homeland.
There has recently been a worldwide Twitter movement in support of diversity within surgery #IlookLikeASurgeon. It speaks volumes to the continuing need to support a new view of who and what a good surgeon is and how to appropriately balance our own lives with the lives entrusted to us by our patients. Through greater attention to the key concepts of mentorship, sponsorship, and role models we can move beyond heroes and create a “new life beyond the thunderdome.”
Deborah L Benzil, MD, FACS, FAANS is a neurosurgeon currently serving as the Vice President of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. She practices neurosurgery in New York as a partner with Mount Kisco Medical Group with a faculty appointment with Columbia University School of Medicine. She is also founding partner of Benzil Zusman LLC consulting company by and for physicians.