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  • My Story as a Female Surgeon
  • Amy Wandel

I graduated from medical school in 1983. I told my school assistant dean that I loved my surgical rotations and wanted to do a surgical residency. He advised me to look at pediatrics or OB/Gyn residencies because "women did not go into surgery." Disregarding this advice, I applied and was accepted into a general surgery residency in the U.S. Navy. There were 20 residents total and I was the only female. It was a lonely five years for me. I was not an outgoing person and did not feel completely accepted by my male peers. Most of my running mates were polite to me, but very few were actually friendly and none were inclusive. I learned it was safer to keep quiet and speak only when spoken to. In retrospect, this behavior isolated me even more from my fellow residents.

The staff surgeons were supportive and treated me very fairly. One was a wonderful mentor to me, teaching me what it took to be a great general surgeon and how to critically assess my performance in order to improve. I was also very fortunate to work with the one and only female surgeon, a cardiothoracic surgeon. She taught me how to communicate effectively with my male colleagues and how to survive in a tough, very male-dominated field.

After completing my residency, I spent two years in Subic Bay, Philippines. My time in this remote hospital was very educational and I had the opportunity to grow as a surgeon and a person under the guidance of my male partner. I left the Philippines for Plastic Surgery residency. I found a very different culture in my civilian program. In the military, I always felt that I was evaluated by my performance and not by my gender. In my civilian residency program, I did not feel this same sense of equality among residents. My program sought to hire a female and a male every year, but there was a culture of male favoritism. The female residents responded to more ER calls and tended to do more of the scut work. I was frequently told by the emergency room staff that my male counterpart "would never come in for this type of call." Neither I nor my predecessors complained about this arrangement. [End Page 199] There were stories of female residents who had complained about this and had been labeled as "troublemakers."

I responded by working harder and trying to remain cordial to my running mate. I felt this was the way to be successful as a female surgeon and gain equal status. One event really changed my perspective on what I faced as a female surgeon. There was one staff surgeon who was known to be "quick-tempered" and very demanding in the OR. He was also known to be overly critical of female residents, frequently "losing his temper" and yelling at them in the OR. He was much friendlier with the male residents, often joking with them during surgery. He was an excellent surgeon, so all of us wanted to work with him and learn. When I worked with him, I was extremely quiet and focused on the case. I worked at being well prepared for the expected "grilling."

One day will remain a turning point for me. It dramatically brought home how poorly the women in my program were treated. I was the senior resident at the time. I had just walked into the doctor's lounge when an OR nurse approached me. She told me that a staff surgeon had just thrown a chair at the female resident assisting in the case. She explained that the surgeon had lost his temper, had started yelling at the staff, and then had thrown an instrument down onto the surgical field. The resident had picked up the instrument in an attempt to deescalate the situation and complete the case. Instead, this seemed to enrage the surgeon, and he picked up a chair and threw it across the room, barely missing the female resident. I was horrified and went to look for the resident involved. When I found her in the locker room...


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pp. 199-201
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