Not all surgeons are men. The NY Daily News 8/13/15 edition launched the social media campaign, which is a spin off of the STEM movement, celebrating women engineers. I learned of it from a woman with whom I was in General Surgery residency and who is like me, a BC Plastic Surgeon in private practice. We were comrades in arms in the 80’s, when the prerequisite for Plastic Surgery residency was 5 years of General Surgery residency. In academic hospitals, the first week of July is when the new house staff arrives on the wards and all nurses, faculty and patients are on high alert. Before we arrived, as “handmaidens” to the true religion, we had taken as many “hard core” senior electives, trying to fortify our confidence for the inevitable, being the intern in the ICU.
As surgical subinterns, we fell over each other to outperform, get as many procedures under our belts and the secure letters of recommendations from Attending Surgeons. Undeniably, our applications were filtered by the infamous MCAT scores and coaching on how to handle the so called “illegal” questions: Are you married? Do you plan on having a family? etc. Naively, we hoped that our gender and reproductive potential would not be at question when we initiated the PGY1, internship year but this was the era before FMLA and the concept of workplace discrimination. We plunged gleefully into a steep pyramidal program, where the number of provisional and categorical interns exceeded the number which could be graduated, thereby fomenting unparalleled rivalry: man vs man, man vs woman, woman vs woman.
We learned how to cope with privation: sleep, hunger, relationships. The myth of “superwoman” evolved to make us feel inadequate and guilty about expending any resources on anything not related to General Surgery. Amazingly, our husbands became “lead” parents, after we delivered, took 2 weeks vacation leave and returned to 100 hour work weeks and the prospect of repeating another clinical year. The status quo was perpetuated by our failure to dissent but we all labored under the mantra of youth “you can do anything for a short period of time.” And then five years were over and we relocated to Plastic Surgery residency.
Undoubtedly Plastic Surgery training was comparatively more genteel. I embraced new challenges: different pathophysiology, procedures, personalities and welcomed another child. After 3 years, 2 residencies and 4 changes of domiciles, I returned home to practice with my father. Time confers a great sense of perspective. Although there have been changes in the duration of training and provision for Board Certification, women surgeons of my generation have prevailed, acquired the skills to compete and contribute to our chosen field. Am I acrimonious for perceived injustice? I am comforted by the knowledge that legislation and attitudes have evolved. Kurt Vonnegut observes “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive. “ As more girls choose to dream and enter historically undersubscribed professions, STEM, MMA, Surgery, it’s because we have “stood on the shoulders of giants”. An old English proverb holds that a surgeon has “the eye of an eagle, the heart of a lion and the hand of a woman”. Let’s not forget.