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  • Becoming a Role Model
  • Erica M. Carlisle

As a general surgery resident on an off-site vascular rotation, I rounded early to assure all dressing changes were complete prior to going to the OR. One morning, I entered the room of an 80-year-old patient status post debridement of a leg wound. The physical therapist had also arrived early that day, and he was working with the patient when I entered the room. MSNBC news was blaring on the television—reporters were highlighting the upcoming presidential election. “Oh honey,” uttered the physical therapist to me and the two female medical students rounding with me. “We can change the channel to something more suitable for you girls—maybe a make-up infomercial?” Up to my elbows in topical antibiotic cream and gauze bandage rolls, I paused, stared at the therapist, and remained speechless. I was shocked that he had so blatantly disrespected my team and me. But sadly, the encounter wasn’t unique. I said nothing and resumed the dressing change with little more than a roll of my eyes. I then packed up my supplies and left the room ashamed—ashamed that I hadn’t come up with a snarky comment to teach this person that what he said was offensive, and even more ashamed that, in my silence, I had taught the students that tolerance of such remarks and attitudes was acceptable.

Years have passed. I am now a pediatric surgeon. Throughout my professional life, I have made a calculated, specific effort to select both training programs and faculty positions in departments of surgery that truly support egalitarian principles, and I consider myself to have been successful in this endeavor. I have been markedly impressed by the chairs of surgery and division chiefs’ efforts to promote the success of women in their departments. Despite these efforts from the top, I have been disappointed to find that this egalitarian spirit rarely permeates all layers of these great institutions. Sadly, I have been reminded of this early morning dressing change numerous times along my journey when I have encountered similar exchanges. I am grateful that my criticisms pale in comparison to those of many of my female colleagues or many women who underwent surgical training in the decades preceding mine. However, while the individual examples may seem trite, I think many can agree that the repetitive nature of these micro-aggressions is simply exhausting.

Throughout my training and career as a pediatric surgeon, I have been required to respond to all critical pediatric traumas when on-call. Parking near most institutions is at a premium, so the trauma surgeons are often asked to park their vehicles in locations typically used for other purposes. Late one night, prior to my arrival in the trauma bay, my resident called to notify me that the ED physicians were having difficulty securing the airway of a child who had recently been in a motor vehicle crash. Just arriving in the ED parking lot, I promptly parked my [End Page E3] car and walked quickly through the ED—ID badge in place. While I heard someone shouting “ma’am” meters behind me, my attention was focused on rapidly arriving at the patient’s bedside. It was not until a paramedic walking in front of me suggested that the shouting security guard was shouting at me that I paused. I turned around and was met with gruff requests to account for my parking spot utilization and extreme surprise when I explained that I was the trauma surgeon on call. After assisting the guard in lifting his jaw from the floor, I wondered whether a male surgeon would have been shouted after and forced to explain himself in such a manner. Perhaps so—parking can be difficult at large academic institutions—but while I have had many conversations with female colleagues about the need to explain themselves when they enter a room, my male colleagues have never expressed such a concern. The episode continued. After assuring the patient’s airway had been secured, I helped transfer the patient to the CT scanner only to be asked to move aside by a radiology tech as I was...


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