I participate in a few doctor only on line message boards and forums. A topic that has been front and center the past few months has been the #METOO movement and some of the challenges women in medicine face. I’d like to share a few of my own stories. Fortunately none of them include Harvey Weinstein.
I finished medical school in 1983. 1/3 of my graduating class were women. These days women comprise more than 50% of most medical school classes. I did my general surgery residence at the University of Utah, not exactly a bastion of progressive ideas. Surprisingly about 20% of the surgery residents were women. I felt very little discrimination but maybe I was just to busy and exhausted to notice? I did get a couple of evaluations that I thought were just hilarious and still do. They were both from the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) Hospital. One described me as “defensive, argumentative and with a chip on my shoulder”. The other described me as “a sharp little gal”. My boyfriend at the time just about split a gut laughing when he saw these. He was also a general surgery resident and never got such amusing reviews.
I had a few interesting experiences with male patients. When I was doing an Intensive Care Unit rotation as a wet behind the ears intern at the University Hospital, I helped with a middle aged Mormon Elder who was crashing badly from acute pancreatitis. (If you have never heard of this disease, count yourself lucky). I was cleaning his penis in preparation to place a catheter so we could monitor his urinary output. This man was very ill and a little delirious. He looked at me and said “Doc, I’ll give you 10 minutes to stop that”. It never crossed my mind to take offense at this. It added a bit of levity (ha, ha) to a very serious situation. I got to know this gentleman quite well during his ICU stay and he was a totally stand up guy. On the gastroenterology rotation during my third year, I was doing a colonoscopy on an elderly man and he twisted his torso and neck to look me right in the eye and asked “What is a pretty little thing like you doing here?” At the time, I thought that was actually a very good question! This fellow grew up in a time where women rarely worked outside the home and certainly did not become surgeons. Again, since I was the one with the scope, I felt no animosity towards him.
My first year of my plastic surgery residency (after 6 years of general surgery) three of the four residents were women. This was a fluke of the computer based residency matching system. The chairman of plastic surgery, Dr. Henry Neale was a good old boy from the south. He kept a bull whip in his desk drawer. Really. He was a great surgeon and ran a powerful department. We operated our brains out and he had our back every day. Dr. Neale was very, very politically incorrect. He pondered if Sue, Kim and I would start cycling together and once stated he should put a Kotex machine in the resident’s office. Well, the three of us just dished it right back at him and we did end up cycling together.
There was one occasion where I really felt harassed. I was a 4th year general surgery resident on call at a private hospital in Ogden, Utah. Late one night there was knock on my call room door. I opened it to find an elderly staff surgeon with alcohol on his breath with a fifth of Southern Comfort (yuck!) in his hand. He wanted to know if I wanted to party. This scene was so ludicrous that I laugh out loud just thinking about it. Most residents given the choice of sleep vs. party would pick sleep no matter whom was holding the bottle. This man’s son was a medical student who had rotated on my service a few months previously. I told the party hound horn dog that he had three seconds to leave or I would tell his son. I think he was gone before I hit “two”. I never assisted him on a case again which was no loss on my part because he was a lousy surgeon. No, I did not file a complaint or make a fuss of this. Again, he grew up in a different time.
I’ve had a few really weird patient encounters in private practice related to my gender. Years ago when I was pregnant with my twin sons and could barely fit through a door, I had a mentally unstable older man with a skin cancer on his scalp the size of a poker chip. This, gentle readers, is what we surgeons call a GREAT CASE. The mentally unstable older man was quite the cad with many comments about my huge belly and the certain studhood of my husband. He also had many bizarre ideas about selenium deficinecy and sexual function. I was not sad to send him on his way once he had healed. A few years later I had an elderly woman come in with another neglected and ginormous skin cancer who shrieked when she saw me and declared that “women are stupid and I won’t have one for my doctor”. Oh well, that great case went to my partner who has a Y chromosome. She was nasty to him too.
As I write this blog, I can’t really think of any weird encounters in recent years. I think in the 26(!) years since I started practice that being a woman surgeon or woman astronaut or woman programmer or even race car driver has become sort of a no big deal which suits me just fine. Recently my 17 year-old daughter took a field trip with her computer science class to the Microsoft campus just outside of Seattle. She attends an all girl high school and they were given a tour by an all female coding team. The advice given to these bright young students by these bright young and not-so-young techies was to work hard, advocate for yourself and don’t take things too personally. I think that is good advice regardless of your gender or your workplace.
Thanks for reading and follow me on Instagram @sowdermd and @breastimplantsanity. Dr. Lisa Lynn Sowder, girl surgeon. And there will be an upcoming blog about delayed childbearing which is something I don’t recommend but sure worked for me.