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  • Making the Most of Opportunity
  • Elizabeth H. Stephens

In part I’m named after my paternal grandmother, Helen Elizabeth Stephens, and in many ways, the name was very apt. If I had one word to describe her, she was determined—fiercely determined. She grew up in St. Louis, and while the boys in the family were allowed to go to college, that was not an option for her. Not deterred, she paid her way through art school, and in the midst of the Depression was a working woman selling furniture and then running her own gift shop in a time and place where it was very difficult for anyone to earn money let alone a single female in a society where she “should” have been married and at home producing children.

She traveled to New York City and San Francisco on buying trips, and purchased her own car; she must have been quite the sight driving around St. Louis.

She eventually married a physicist and life took them to Philadelphia, where my grandfather became a prominent leader in the field and Dean of the University of Pennsylvania. My grandmother, when not painting or selling her art, was an organizer, heading the local library board, a founding member of the University of Pennsylvania Women’s Club. Her dogged independence and perseverance continued as she aged and her husband passed away. She kept on with her hobbies, ice dancing every week until 95 when her ability no longer met her standards, climbing up on ladders to prune her pear tree when she was nearing 100, and continuing to travel to exotic places to explore and paint.

My grandma “Stevie” and I frequently chatted, and as I became interested in medicine and ultimately congenital heart surgery, she would always say, “Isn’t it wonderful you love what you do.” I may have been complaining about how sleep deprived I was, or how everyone thought I was a nurse, but her comment redirected my thinking: I was so lucky to have the opportunities I had. Just two generations ago, she didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her academic dreams, but, undeterred, she had forged another road for herself. I not only had an opportunity to go to college, but also to get a PhD, become a physician, and even become a cardiac surgeon. My grandmother passed away before I started residency and the real rubber hit the road. I had no idea the types of challenges I would face and need to overcome, but I am forever thankful for her perspective. I would draw on her example as I faced the travails of being a minority in my field and institution.

The various episodes of discrimination and bias I experienced are not unlike other females pursuing cardiac surgery as the lone female in their department. It was a daily feeling of having to swim upstream against a strong current in an open ocean while others swam in an indoor pool with no current at all. While the manifestation of the bias varied from day to day, it was fundamentally my life’s path disrupting people’s notion of who a cardiac surgeon was.

The point is not the specifics of what I have experienced and continue to experience, but learning [End Page E1] how to respond. I had a decision to make: either become bitter about how what I was experiencing was unfair and made my road so much tougher than those around me, or make a conscious decision each time I experienced one of these situations to let it roll off my back. I could bemoan my plight, drown in self-pity, or eat-away at myself with bitterness toward those around me, or choose to rise above it—just like my grandmother had. Interestingly, I only heard about how my grandmother wasn’t allowed to go to college through my father, she never spoke about the opportunities she didn’t have, but instead would speak of the opportunities she had created for herself. I am not condoning how I have been treated, but my experience changed when I made a conscious decision to not let others hold me down. Most...


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