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Female surgeons make the cut

A bout three volts of electricity sparked Dr. Jessica Wilden’s interest in surgery.

As a medical student at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., she had the opportunity to shadow a neurosurgeon. The first surgery she saw is the surgery she performs as an assistant professor in the department of neurosurgery at LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport: deep brain stimulation, a procedure using an electrical-powered brain pacemaker to treat movement disorders.

“I was hooked,” Wilden said. “It was everything I loved. You could see her symptoms going away immediately.”

But, because the science behind DBS served as Wilden’s primary interest, few took her desire to become a functional neurosurgeon seriously.

“They expect a very warm and fuzzy response from a female, and I got a lot of kickback from that. People did not believe me when I said that I love science; women don’t get a good rap with science and technology,” she said. Wilden said that throughout her training, professors continually asked her if she was sure about her career path.

“My interest was questioned throughout my training; that’s the big problem as science is traditionally not seen as female. Women can be real nerds, loving science as much as they love their family,” she said.

Women now make up almost half of medical school graduates with 48 percent of medical school graduates being women in 2011, according to the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions. However, a disparity of women in surgery exists with females making up 19 percent of surgeons, according to the American Medical Association.

“There’s that thought that when you’re a woman, surgery is a demanding field. Girls get scared they can’t have a family. They can’t make the soccer game and things like that,” said Dr. Christina Notarianni, chief of pediatric surgery in the department of neurosurgery at LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport.

While in her first year of medical school at LSUHSC-S, Notarianni watched Dr. Anil Nanda, department of neurosurgery chairman, present a video of an aneurysm clipping. She remembers thinking the procedure was “the coolest thing ever” and knowing she wanted to be part of it. The two are now colleagues, working closely together on the department’s residency program.

Women are the majority in some specialties, however. More than 50 percent of pediatricians are women, according to the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions. Some of these types of specialties can allow more flexibility, causing more women to choose these specialties over surgery specialties, said Dr. Cherie-Ann Nathan, chairman of the department of otolaryngology at LSUHSC-S.

“There are many fields where you can be part-time, like pediatrics. You can’t do that as a surgeon,” Nathan said. Although, she said that the surgery workload is not as intense as it used to be, now consisting of 80-hour weeks. Nathan knew she wanted to treat cancer since writing an essay in the second grade on what she wanted to be when she grew up. She now works as the director of head and neck surgical oncology and research.

Wilden, Notarianni and Nathan expressed that balance is key in surgery. All three women work to balance the different aspects of their work with their home life. Nathan has two children, as does Notarianni.

“The key is to have an excellent babysitter and supportive husband,” Nathan said. “Between my husband and myself, we haven’t missed any of our children’s events.” Nathan also plays piano alongside her sons, who play the violin and cello. She begins her day at 4 a.m., working on her research and to fit in performing surgeries, seeing patients in clinic and running a department, among other responsibilities.

“I’m really busy, but I have the ability to flex my schedule. For the most part, I can adjust my day, and I have great help at home,” Notarianni said. When she was pregnant with her first daughter, she had to have her baby unexpectedly early at 38 weeks. She had planned on working until her due date and had surgeries scheduled for the next day. After typing out an email to the department explaining her situation, she spoke with Nanda. She said there was no hesitation, and the department covered the surgeries she would have to miss.

Wilden works to balance time with her husband, her passion for the outdoors and her research. She researches alcoholism with rats, testing to see if deep brain stimulation can help cure negative behavior, such as addiction.

In addition to longer hours, Notarianni believes the lack of women in surgery discourages new female medical school graduates from applying to surgery programs. “Residency in general is very hard, but it’s very hard to be the only girl. You’re breaking into the boys’ club. You’re kind of on your own. It can be lonely,” Notarianni said.

Though surgery programs are usually all-male or mostly male, Wilden said having a female colleague as a supporter can be helpful.

“Dr. Notarianni has supported me in front of everyone. I would be a lot less successful, confident and ambitious without her support,” she said.

While there is a disparity of women in surgery, there is also a disparity in chairmen. Nathan is one of four female ENT chairs in the nation. She said she has been treated fairly as a female department chair.

“I have been pleasantly surprised. I planned on coming here for a year and moving back to San Diego (where she completed residency). I thought the South would be bad. I haven’t felt once there’s been any bias. Everything has been pretty fair,” she said.

The surgeons said support and encouragement are key in inspiring more women to become surgeons, as they all feel supported in their current positions. Nathan said as more women are in medical school, eventually more women will become surgeons. “Everything takes time. I think we’ll get there,” she said.

–Tara Bullock

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