First All-Female Surgery Class: A Sign of the Times?

Melissa. Roseanna. Bianca. Linda. Kristin. Candice. Laura.

Women surgeons at URMC

Left to right: Candice Lee, M.D., Roseanna Guzman, M.D., Laura Nally, M.D., Bianca Redhead, M.D., Linda Ding, M.D., Melissa Mastroianni, M.D., and Kristin Kelly, M.D., sit for a portrait in an operating room at the University of Rochester Medical Center. The seven, currently in their second year, comprise the first-ever all female surgical resident class at the URMC and possibly the country. (Photo: J. Adam Fenster-University of Rochester)

When URMC’s surgery residency program director Thomas Watson, M.D., saw the roster for the incoming 2010/2011 general surgery class, he was shocked. While it listed seven highly-qualified candidates from medical schools across the country, there was one glaring distinction from years past: For the first time in the University’s history, every incoming resident was a woman.

Many professionals consider surgery one of the last remaining male-dominated fields, and rightly so – only 19 percent of the nation’s 160,000 surgeons are women. But URMC’s all-female intern class may be one of the starkest examples of how the gender breakdown in surgery, the so-called “Old Boy’s Club” of medicine, is changing.

“When I applied to residency programs 15 years ago, you still had to wear a skirt suit to interviews,” said Nicole Stassen, M.D., a trauma surgeon and associate professor at the Medical Center. “Over the years I’ve practiced, I’ve seen a lot of progress in terms of women entering the field, and I’m sure as this class moves forward they will influence the makeup of future classes as well.”  

According to a study published this year in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, the percentage of women entering into general surgery residency programs increased from 32 percent in academic year 2000/2001 to 40 percent in 2004/2005 – a 25 percent uptick in just four years. And while women filling every spot in URMC’s 2010/2011 intern class happened by chance – a computer program matches medical students with residency positions based on the students’ and institutions’ preferences – thoracic surgeon Carolyn Jones, M.D. feels it reflects some broader cultural shifts. 

“I think having more women in our program is an illustration of the reality that more women in the pool of new doctors are interested in surgery,” said Jones, who completed her residency and is now an associate professor at the Medical Center. “It’s also a testament to the fact that our program is attractive to both men and women, and while we have a longstanding tradition in surgery, we’re not stagnant or exclusive. This open approach and view that we should look into the future and not just rejoice in our past is what makes our program, and the University as a whole, very appealing.”

The residents themselves found numerous aspects of URMC’s surgery residency program attractive, including an engaged and extremely supportive group of faculty members, an array of research and training options to pursue in and outside the hospital, and exposure to a wide range of surgical cases, to name a few. 

Bianca Redhead, M.D., a member of the all-female class and a graduate of the UR School of Medicine and Dentistry, said her main criterion was finding a “non-malignant” program.

“Training for a career in surgery is undoubtedly a difficult, intense process,” she said. “But I knew Rochester treated its residents well. As a medical student here I saw residents on a daily basis; I saw what their lives were like, and I knew this was going to be a good fit for me.”

Rachel Farkas, M.D.

Rachel Farkas, M.D.

While interviewing at different hospitals, resident Melissa Mastroianni, M.D., came to the same conclusion. “There are several strong women in the Department who I knew would be good mentors, and I really appreciated that,” said Mastroianni, who attended medical school at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “While they’re all extremely driven, they also have personal lives outside the hospital, which reassured me that surgery is still a viable career choice, even if you have other life plans.” 

Indeed, many women pursuing careers in surgery are raising children at the same time. Some women joining the ranks are even having babies during their grueling residencies, realizing that there’s no perfect time to “slow down” and start a family.

Past chief resident Rachel Farkas, M.D., is one. She became pregnant in her fifth, final year of residency at URMC, and gave birth to her son Nathan this April, just months before finishing the program and passing her board exam. 

Doctor in surgery

Farkas worked right up until her son arrived, thanks to a host of colleagues who helped her manage the demands of residency and pregnancy. In the spirit of collegiality that Rochester is known for, Luke Schoeniger, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Surgery and Oncology, retrofitted a retractor bar – a large metal “guard rail” surgeons lean over to manipulate organs in the abdominal cavity – so that it bent inward, allowing Farkas to sidle up to the table and operate more easily with her growing belly. Likewise, fellow residents gladly filled in for Farkas as needed, especially towards the end of her pregnancy.

Everyone in the Department was amazingly supportive,” said Farkas, who is married to URMC endocrine surgeon Jacob Moalem, M.D. “I knew it was going to be complicated, but with a lot of help and encouragement along the way it all worked out. There has always been a way to balance both – being a surgeon and a mom – but it helps immensely when you have mentors who have been through it before. I think strong role models, like the ones I had here, will be what draws even more women into the field; they really make the profession more approachable.”

Watson says another factor likely contributing to the “approachability” of surgical residency – for women and men alike – is the mandated 80-hour work week for residents in training. Other faculty members cite the growing flexibility found in the medical profession in general.

Colorectal surgeon Jenny Speranza, M.D., is excited by the trend of more women entering surgery and believes women will to continue to play a larger role in medicine as a whole.

“Women have a lot of good qualities rolled up into one package, and patients really like that,” she said. “They want someone who is compassionate and caring, in addition to being a great surgeon with whom they can communicate with openly, and most women fit the bill.”

In their second year of training, the members of the all-female intern class say they’ve bonded well as a group, and are even friends outside of work, organizing social gatherings when they can.

They say they’re happy to be at URMC, where they all agree they’re getting a top-rate education.

“Being here every day, learning more about our program and what is happening at the Medical Center overall, makes me feel lucky and proud to be a part of it,” said resident Roseanna Guzman, M.D. “I know I am going to get really great training here.”

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