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  • But I Love My Big Hair! An Essay on the Discouragement and Difficulty of Becoming a Woman Surgeon
  • Katherine Bakke

Ever since I was a girl, I have had long, curly blonde hair. It is my most prominent feature. In grade school, mothers would exclaim “look at those curls!” while little children would coo, “it feels like straw.” Not being striking in any other way, my hair was a way for people to identify me, describe me, and differentiate me from others. By the time I reached adulthood, my hair was a manifestation of my personality—a bit big, a tad unruly, and utterly authentic. I loved my long curls and what they said to the world about me.

However, long hair is, in many ways, impractical for a doctor. I learned this lesson in anatomy lab during medical school. I hated anatomy lab. Our first dissection involved taking a hammer and chisel to my cadaver’s spinal column in order to break it open and expose the spinal cord. The [End Page E14] clang of metal against bone was barbaric, and I didn’t find disemboweling my cadaver or giving him a craniotomy to be any more palatable. Twice a week for a year, I struggled to dissect desiccated tissue and memorize the sinews that composed the human body. After each session, I returned home starving and would let my hair down as I cooked dinner, the scent of the lab wafting out from my tumbling strands, forcing me to decide which need to prioritize—hygiene or hunger. Hunger won every time. This was perfect preparation for my life as a general surgery resident: the adage, “eat when you can, sleep when you can . . .” doesn’t mention anything about showering.

Given how much I loathed anatomy lab, I never expected to be a surgeon. However, my trauma surgery rotation was a singular experience. The first time my pager alarmed, I hustled down to the trauma bay with my heart racing. My job was simple—stand behind a yellow line until summoned by the trauma chief, then shear off the patient’s clothes and throw warm blankets over his body. I performed these tasks nervously but satisfactorily and then stepped back to watch the resuscitation.

The patient was a young man in a motorcycle crash. The scene was frenzied, with shouts for vitals, fluids, and a chest tube. Amidst the chaos, I watched as a surgery resident calmly lined up the instruments he needed for the chest tube. The last thing he did before effortlessly placing the tube into the patient’s chest and evacuating a flood of blood onto the floor was load a 0–0 silk suture in a needle driver and flick his wrist, draping the suture’s tail onto the sterile field. I was captivated by the commanding grace with which he approached his task. If life’s decisions can be pinpointed to moments—moments pointed to in order to explain one’s decisions—then that moment was mine. The flick of a wrist sparked my mind and heart simultaneously, and I thought, “That! That is the kind of doctor I want to be.”

Yet, I resisted the idea of becoming a surgeon. Medical students are advised to “find their people” and enter a specialty in which they feel they belong. While my brain lent itself easily to surgical problem solving, and years of childhood sewing projects had given me “good hands,” there was little if anything about my personality that was surgical. My attitude was upbeat, not stern; I was detail oriented but not anal retentive; I was self-deprecating, not arrogant; and, honestly, I enjoyed talking with patients more than most psychiatrists. I was also a woman.

While there were a number of women surgeons at my medical school, I struggled to relate to them just as much as I struggled to relate to the male surgeons. Some were demanding perfectionists who were respected for their operative skills but disliked for their terse behavior. Others were quiet and reserved, which is to say their demeanor was measured and restrained. None of them enjoyed the liberty of their male counterparts, who cracked jokes at...


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pp. E14-E17
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