By Stephanie Bonne
Nearly 2 years ago, the women’s surgical community was shocked by the loss of one of our own. Dr. Sherilyn Gordon-Burroughs, a gifted transplant surgeon, accomplished researcher, residency program director, and mother of a young daughter, was found dead in her home in an apparent murder-suicide committed by her husband. Her young daughter was left an orphan, cared for by her family.
The immediate responses of shock and sorrow were apparent, but in the coming weeks as those waned, an unsettling thought came to the forefront: How did this happen? Dr. Gordon-Burroughs was an African American woman who became an academic transplant surgeon-scientist at a time when the odds were overwhelmingly against her. How does someone who was so academically and clinically successful become the victim of intimate partner violence? Can this happen to my colleagues? Can this happen to me? We learned once again a few weeks ago that it can, when our emergency medicine colleague, Dr. Tamara O’Neal was shot and killed by a former intimate partner at Mercy Hospital in Chicago.
The facts remain clear: 1 in 4 women experience severe intimate partner physical violence (IPV) in their lifetime, and 1 and 3 have experiences some kind of physical violence, even if it’s “lesser” violence, such as slapping or pushing. Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all crime, and 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year. Although not relevant in this case, the presence of a gun in the household where intimate partner violence is occurring increases a woman’s chance of death by 500%. Also concerning is that intimate partner violence is most common in women aged 18-24. This can, in some cases, include some of our early preclinical medical students (https://ncadv.org/statistics).
While no specific statistics exist about the variance in incidence of domestic violence among women with higher education, such as with medical degrees, we know that this must be occurring in our “own house” – the house of surgery. In 2017, the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress had a special session to address this, where we heard moving stories from surgeons who are survivors of domestic violence. This was a call to action, and a launch of an initiative directed by the 2017-2018 president of the ACS and AWS member, Dr. Barbara Bass, who, as it happens, was Dr. Gordon-Burrough’s chair of surgery at Houston Methodist.
Dr. Bass, along with AWS members and others, developed a task force to address IPV in the surgical community. In just 1 year, the task force authored an article outlining its own purpose and goals, has approved and published a revised intimate partner violence statement from the ACS, partnered with Committee on Trauma to author an article on the relationship between firerarms and IPV, developed a panel session on IPV for the 2019 Clinical Congress, and has worked with AWS to form a survey of surgeons to help identify the problem within the surgical population. The group has also partnered with the AAMC to ensure that the needs of medical students are adequately represented. You can read more about the task force in the October 2018 Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons. The goal of this workgroup is to continue to evaluate the problem of IPV specifically among our own colleagues, and discuss ways in which we can identify, intervene, and support our colleagues who may be experiencing this problem. In doing so, we hope to improve health and possibly save lives.
In conjunction with this effort, AWS has revised its Intimate Partner Violence Statement, which can be found at: https://www.womensurgeons.org/page/IPVStatement
Although Dr. Bass’s tenure as ACS president has ended, the task force will live on in memory of Dr. Gordon-Burroughs and to continue the important work of developing a structure for IPV prevention and to address ongoing IPV among surgeons. As such, we can all live healthier lives and ensure that gifted members of our surgical community are able to best care for our patients.
If you are experiencing IPV and need help, please contact one of the following resources, or consider reaching out to your chair, program director, or your institutions employee assistance program.
Resources for IPV include:
International Toll-Free (24/7)
Dr. Bonne is a board-certified general surgeon with additional training and certification in Surgical Critical Care. Her clinical interests are in trauma and injury prevention, trauma epidemiology, and infections in the surgical intensive care unit. She participates in the American College of Surgeons, the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, the ACS Committee on Trauma, the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma, and the Society of Critical Care Medicine. She leads the American Medical Women’s Association Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, and is the surveillance core director of the New Jersey Center for FIrearm Injury Research at Rutgers University. Dr. Bonne is the current Communications Chair for the AWS, a co-editor for AJS, and also serves as the faculty advisor for the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School chapter. She is a wife and mother to three young children. You can follow her on Twitter: @scrubbedin.
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.