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  • What Doesn't Kill You, Makes You Stronger … or Does It?
  • Claudia Emami

I didn't decide to become a surgeon until my first surgery rotation as a third-year medical student. I didn't know much about surgery and had never worked with surgeons or known any. I subscribed to the general stereotype of surgeons being tough and serious, and mostly male. I had to mitigate my desire to pursue a surgical career with the intense fear of what the training would entail or how it would change my life. Like many in my shoes, I was naïve and managed to overlook all the important stuff such as the nature of surgical training and its effect on me as a woman.

The reality bites, and it bit hard during my internship. I was bullied and berated, mostly because I was considered to have a "big mouth." It meant I wouldn't let people berate me without at least trying to defend myself. I was called a "Persian princess" because I had opinions and dared to express them despite the expectations that interns must shut up and follow. My seniors assumed that this was a result of me being Persian. The princess part was yet another stereotypical assumption based on what people considered my "snobby attitude." No one ever complained about my work—in fact, they were worried that I was too confident and too quick and efficient in performing my tasks. During my intern year evaluation, Dr. X, one of my senior attendings, asked me to try and pretend that I was having a harder time at work. He said that other residents were offended that I "don't look miserable enough" and I "don't hang out" with them much to commiserate the way interns are supposed to.

I admit that I was very efficient and in total shock of why, collectively, everyone around me was always unhappy and complaining. The general misconception was that you must not work hard enough or care deeply enough about your patients if you didn't look or act exhausted. Our chairman was a deeply religious man, and his training philosophy was one of "total submission." In fact, he believed so much in the process of giving up your personal life as trainees that he and some faculty on his service, would go home for dinner and keep the entire team waiting before they did PM rounds. If you complained about how ludicrous this process was you would be considered lazy because, as one of the fellows would say, "If I am here, you're here."

My big mouth as an intern gave me a specific reputation and, as all would tell me, once your reputation is set as an intern, you can't shed it easily. I was supposed to stick around, head down, tolerate the treatment for at least a year, and most of all, not outshine my seniors, especially in front of the attendings. I was supposed to work on having allies amongst staff and seniors and play along with the rules. As such, I was deemed a bit of a "rogue" resident. If I was properly aware of the way this game was supposed to be played, I would have done what was necessary to get from point A to point B in pursuit of my ultimate goals and stayed out of trouble.

My gender only became a prominent factor once I realized certain factions were not happy with me projecting confidence and stealing the spotlight, which traditionally did not belong to someone like me: a Middle Eastern woman and an immigrant without any connections or associations with anyone at the medical school or the department. It occurred to me, as the story progressed that the expectations of behavior from my gender did not match the way I was behaving. That made it hard for men such as Dr. X to respond and relate to me in a neutral way, as he would to a male resident. Especially since he didn't believe that women had a role in the world of surgery. [End Page 201]

That lack of knowledge was my fault. I should have studied...


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pp. 201-203
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