Four female surgeons in full gowns and masks, peering over an operating table graced the cover of the April 3 New Yorker and inspired female surgeons across the world to tweet photos of the same using the hashtag: #Ilooklikeasurgeon. Surgery persists as a male-dominated field with women making up 19% of all surgeons in the U.S. Not so in the case in anesthesiology where women are closing the gender gap in terms of sheer representation. These physicians specialize in perioperative care, development of an anesthetic plan, and the administration of anesthetics. Seven female anesthesiologists from Anesthesiology Consultants of Virginia (ACV) recreated this tableau, not as a political statement but rather a symbol of their diversity, celebrating their American, Indian-Canadian, Jamaican, Asian, and Polish backgrounds. They belong to a practice where women comprise 27% of the group. Many of the reasons they all chose anesthesiology are strikingly similar: a love of clinical procedures, the excitement of working in acute care, and the benefit of being in a field that affords work and life balance.
While earning her undergraduate degree at W&L, Dr. Christine Sherman volunteered at Stonewall Jackson Hospital in Lexington where she was first introduced to the work of anesthesiologists. Drs. Julie Joseph and Ilona Parks noted that they decided to go into the field because they noticed the anesthesiologists were the happiest people in the operating rooms. Parks began her medical career as a neuro-monitoring technician. Dr. Sarah Nie was inspired by her grandmother who was a physician in China.
None of these doctors feel the need to be in the spotlight. Dr. Maxine Lee likens her position to that of a bass player in a band. She is in the background, but still plays a crucial role on the surgical team.
Sherman states, “We take people as close to death as they’d ever be and then we bring them back, and they rarely realize this.”
They are the last people patients are with before a procedure and often the first ones they see when waking up; it’s intensive patient care that goes largely unseen.
The rewards for these doctors are many, and several cited their practice, ACV, as a source of satisfaction. Unpaid vacations and time off are negotiated at the yearly scheduling session, allowing each partner flexibility. Sherman chooses to spend a month at the beach with her family each summer, Parks travels the world, and Dr. Pam Zollinger has renovated a home, paints and participates in community work. She chose ACV because it’s a practice in which physician anesthesiologists provide direct patient care (as opposed to the increasingly common nurse supervision model). Lee is the immediate past president of the Virginia Society of Anesthesiologists and has strongly advocated for physician led anesthesia care. The doctors also cite the challenge of using communication skills to establish trust with patients in just a short amount of time, and they enjoy the fact that when they are done with their work day, they don’t take it home with them.
Like in any profession, these women face obstacles, especially in their dual roles as physician and mother. For Joseph, returning to work after having her babies was a challenge. She was determined to breastfeed, but had no dedicated place to pump and found the whole process of running back to the OR to be exhausting and stressful. Sherman has promised to advocate for better conditions for Nie, who just delivered her first baby and plans to return to work and continue breastfeeding. “I am going to make sure she gets 25 minute breaks!” says Sherman. Balancing family and work can be another challenge, and Sherman notes that she has purposely avoided taking on leadership positions at the hospital so that she can focus on raising her three children when she isn’t at work.
The respect these women have for each other is tremendous. Baby showers and social gatherings strengthen their friendships when they aren’t in their scrubs. Group e-mail communication allows them to support one other. When a family emergency comes up, a back-up plan is merely a text away. If you find yourself on an operating table in any Carilion facility in the Roanoke Valley, you may be lucky enough to have one of these accomplished doctors looking over you.
Written by Kate Ericsson