Girl Surgeon in a Man's World

I read an interesting article the other day from the Huffington Post, ‘The Secret World of Women Surgeons You Had No Idea Existed’. This hits very close to home because, well, I’m a girl surgeon. My reality was all that is outlined in the article. And I’m proud of that. It was a tough road and I’ll get to that but a little background first….

My father is a Cardiologist so I grew up understanding the life of a physician. He recently told me that I declared when I was 10 that I wanted to be a doctor. I do not recall that but do remember very well when I was 16 years old that I wanted…needed…my nose fixed. That was 30 years ago. Shocking. As common as it might be present day, not a lot of parents let their high school students have plastic surgery at the time. My nose was SO bad after multiple breaks and the worst genetic features of Italian and Scotch-Irish breeding, Mom and Dad agreed that this was necessary. So it happened and for the first time ever in my life I felt some degree of confidence. Until 6 months later when an accidental left hook at a Super Bowl party broke it again, hence another surgery and a lifetime of ‘it’s believable because no one would have paid for that’ nose. But that’s another story…

So I declared at 16 years old that I was going to be a Plastic Surgeon. Delusional, really, because there were a lot of obstacles to overcome to get there. But I did it, and I did it old school. That means I did the full General Surgery residency before applying to Plastic Surgery because it never occurred to me to pursue a Plastic Surgery residency at the time. Actually, I am not sure those even existed then. I blame a bad guidance counselor in high school. As if I couldn’t have done the research…

At the time I did my training, the limitations on work hours that now exist were not yet established. We would go to the hospital at 4 in the morning one day and maybe go home at 1 in the morning a day and a half later. It’s just the way it was.

I did 5 years of surgery and 1 year of research before entering the 2 years of Plastics training. And here’s how I did it and survived: I was one of the guys but never stopped being a girl. Growing up, I recall always having as many guy friends as girls. I was never really a girly girl. My mother had a wicked fantastic sense of humor that I grew up with. So in the man’s world of surgery, it didn’t seem so complicated to fit it. I fielded the dirty jokes perhaps intended to offend and replied with something sufficiently offensive that the initiator had to think twice. I am too strong willed to complain…maybe I was concerned that they’d realize I was really a girl if I had complained…so the hours never mattered. I am fortunate to be technically competent so that came rather naturally to me.

There is a quote in the article from the Huffington Post: ‘A woman in scrubs walking through the hospital rarely gets recognized as a doctor, and almost never as a surgeon.’ I cannot recall how many times a patient was on the phone when I entered the room and stated, ‘have to go, the nurse is here’. (Nursing friends: this is not a dig. I love you all SO much. I believe you know this and understand.) I wore scrubs when I had to go to the operating room, of course, but always with a strand of pearls. It was the strand my parents gave me when I graduated from high school. It became a bit of a joke in medical school then during my training in Augusta that I wore pearls with my scrubs. The reason was I put the pearls on when I got dressed at home then changed into and out of scrubs at the hospital. I wore heels and real clothes outside of the operating room. It was certainly done but frowned upon to move through the world in scrubs even then. So that’s what I’m used to and what I do now.

So back to being part of one of the biggest boy’s clubs in the world: Surgery. I love what I do and am eternally grateful that I was given opportunities that allowed me to do this. I love being one of the guys but maintain that I have succeeded to this point without having sacrificed my femininity. ‘Surgery made a man out of me,’ is another quote from the article I read. I’m glad that’s not my reality. I have traded turquoise and silver for the pearls and wear more cowboy boots than heels now. You’ll still rarely if ever find me in scrubs outside of the operating room. I can field any dirty joke and can hold my liquor. But I’m all girl. And that’s the way I think it should be.

Here’s up to it!


Emily Mclaughlin1 Comment