Patient Care

#ILookLikeASurgeon: Female Surgical Residents Reflect on Training at URMC

Jun. 19, 2017

They’ve been mistaken for other types of hospital employees. A few times, patients would only speak to their male counterparts. But when Bianca, Candice, Kristin, and Sandra officially end their surgery residency program at URMC on June 24, they will look back, satisfied, knowing they were part of history.

“We’re just much stronger as a group, and as people, because we’ve been able to go through this experience together,” says Bianca Redhead, M.D., who is heading to the American College of Surgeons Transition to Practice Program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

Chance brought these women together. In 2010 the nationwide computer program that matches medical students with residency positions happened to fill every spot in the URMC surgery program with a female. It was the first time in the program’s history this had occurred. Some wondered if it was a sign of things to come.

Starting at bottom right, going clockwise: Candice Lee, Mehr Qureshi, Sandra Farach, Kristin Kelly, Michelle Han.
Starting at bottom right, going clockwise: Candice Lee, Mehr Qureshi, Sandra Farach, Kristin Kelly, Michelle Han.

“I heard there was some trepidation from the administration and attending physicians when they saw our incoming roster,” Redhead says. “They were concerned about us altering the dynamics, about infighting and cattiness. It reminded me of Y2K, ‘the world is going to end.’ But everyone woke up the next morning and realized it was as it had been.”

Surgery is a branch of medicine long known for male dominance and hierarchy. Finally, the women say, surgical culture has started to reflect tolerance and equality. Several of the recent incoming classes of interns, including this year’s class, are a 50-50 mix of males and females.

In fact, graduate Candice Lee, M.D., who will move on to a cardiothoracic surgery fellowship at Alleghany General Hospital in Pittsburgh, presented her final grand rounds at URMC on the all-female class and the rising tide of women in surgery. She points out that University of California-Davis now has a female dean of its medical school and a female chair of surgery—a rarity.

However, the news is not all rosy for women. Data from the American Association of Medical Colleges shows that it’s much more difficult for females to advance to leadership positions such as division chief or department chair; one study estimates that females will not account for 50 percent of full professors in surgery until the year 2096.

Raising awareness is an important step toward breaking down barriers, and this spring, the graduates jumped into the #ILookLikeASurgeon and #NYerORChallenge social media movements.

The online campaign blew up when the New Yorker magazine published a cover on April 3 showing the faces of four women in scrubs, as if they were looking at a patient on an operating table. (Nearly 30,000 tweets have since used the #ILookLikeASurgeon hashtag.) The URMC female residents took their own group selfie, replicating the New Yorker cover, and shared it to support diversity.

They’ve also bonded in more personal ways.

They’ve confided concerns about balancing work and home life, and shared annoying observations, such as when the tallest of the male residents seemed to always be perceived as the person in charge. Lee recalls one trauma case in which she saved a patient’s life in the operating room, but when she checked on him in recovery the patient asked to speak to the male intern on the team.

Michelle Han, M.D., started residency in 2009 in a male-dominated class. But then she took a few years out for research and ended up finishing her surgical training with the all-female group. She noticed a shift in the tone of the program with the influx of more women.

 “The air was lighter,” Han laughs. “Surgeons in general have creative minds and are adaptive and flexible, which made the transition from being in a class with only two females to now six females, exciting.” Han’s next stop is in Chicago, where she has accepted a fellowship in breast surgical oncology at Northwestern University.

The graduates say they’ve learned to let go of most gender-related frustrations and to focus on being good doctors. Early on, they say, they received excellent advice from a mentor, Carolyn Jones, M.D., associate professor and Chief of Thoracic Surgery at URMC. Jones told them: When you’re in the minority, you’re under a microscope. And your success depends on the success of your predecessors.

“It makes you better in the long run to have to work harder,” says Kristin Kelly, M.D., who is staying at URMC for a colorectal surgery fellowship.

Lee says that earlier in their training, they gravitated towards and took cues from several female chief residents, as well. (Chief residents are in their final year of residency.) “They were strong and capable, and most of them had a different communications style, more feminine, compared to the male residents,” she says. “But in the end, we all get the job done.”

Lasting friendships ended up being a big bonus during their time at URMC.  

They had fun exploring Rochester and the region together. They adore the burgers at Good Luck restaurant in the city, and hiking in Letchworth State Park 40 miles away. Each year, they took part in the grueling Seneca 7 relay race, running 77.7 miles around Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes. Their team was known as “Running with Scalpels.” 

Two colleagues from the all-female intern class, who graduated in 2016, will head back to Rochester to join the team at their Department of Surgery graduation dinner this weekend. Another female trainee, Mehr Qureshi, M.D., who is staying at URMC for a trauma and critical care fellowship, will also graduate with the class. She started residency in 2012.

The icing on the cake is that among all of these talented women will be one “token male,” as they like to joke—Devang (Akash) Joshi, M.D.

Joshi started his residency a year after the all-female class, but ended up completing his training this year. He doesn’t mind graduating on the flip side of history, either.

“It’s been really, really, fun,” says Joshi, who will go to Yale University for a cardiothoracic surgery fellowship. “I’ve witnessed the last four or five graduating classes and these women are great.”

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