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November 16, 2011

First all-female surgery class: a sign of the times?

women in scrubs

Doctors Candice Lee, Roseanna Guzman, Laura Nally, Bianca Redhead, Linda Ding, Melissa Mastroianni, and Kristin Kelly represent the first all-female surgical residency class at the Medical Center.

Melissa. Roseanna. Bianca. Linda. Kristin. Candice. Laura.

When the Medical Center’s surgery residency program director Thomas Watson saw the roster for the incoming 2010–11 general surgery class, he was shocked. While it listed seven highly qualified candidates from medical schools across the country, there was one glaring distinction from years past: For the first time in the University’s history, every incoming resident was a woman.

Many medical professionals consider surgery one of the last remaining male-dominated fields, and rightly so—only 19 percent of the nation’s 160,000 surgeons are women. But the Medical Center’s all-female intern class may be one of the starkest examples of how the gender breakdown in surgery, the so-called “Old Boy’s Club” of medicine, is changing.

“When I applied to residency programs 15 years ago, you still had to wear a skirt suit to interviews,” says Nicole Stassen, a trauma surgeon and associate professor at the Medical Center. “Over the years I’ve practiced, I’ve seen a lot of progress in terms of women entering the field, and I’m sure as this class moves forward they will influence the makeup of future classes as well.” 

According to a study published this year in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, the percentage of women entering into general surgery residency programs increased from 32 percent in academic year 2000–01 to 40 percent in 2004–05—a 25 percent uptick in just four years. And while women filling every spot in the Medical Center’s 2010–11 intern class happened by chance—a computer program matches medical students with residency positions based on the students’ and institutions’ preferences—thoracic surgeon Carolyn Jones feels it reflects some broader cultural shifts.

“I think having more women in our program is an illustration of the reality that more women in the pool of new doctors are interested in surgery,” says Jones, who completed her residency and is now an associate professor at the Medical Center.

“It’s also a testament to the fact that our program is attractive to both men and women, and while we have a longstanding tradition in surgery, we’re not stagnant or exclusive. This open approach and view that we should look into the future and not just rejoice in our past is what makes our program, and the University as a whole, very appealing.”

The residents themselves found numerous aspects of the surgery residency program attractive, including an engaged and extremely supportive group of faculty members, an array of research and training options to pursue in and outside the hospital, and exposure to a wide range of surgical cases, to name a few.

Bianca Redhead, a member of the all-female class and a graduate of the School of Medicine and Dentistry, says her main criterion was finding a “non-malignant” program.

“Training for a career in surgery is undoubtedly a difficult, intense process,” she says. “But I knew Rochester treated its residents well. As a medical student here I saw residents on a daily basis; I saw what their lives were like, and I knew this was going to be a good fit for me.”

While interviewing at different hospitals, resident Melissa Mastroianni came to the same conclusion. “There are several strong women in the department who I knew would be good mentors, and I really appreciated that,” says Mastroianni, who attended medical school at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “While they’re all extremely driven, they also have personal lives outside the hospital, which reassured me that surgery is still a viable career choice, even if you have other life plans.”

Many women pursuing careers in surgery are raising children at the same time. Some women joining the ranks are even having babies during their grueling residencies, realizing that there’s no perfect time to “slow down” and start a family.
Past chief resident Rachel Farkas is one. She became pregnant in her fifth, final year of residency at the Medical Center and gave birth to her son, Nathan, this April, just months before finishing the program and passing her board exam.
Farkas worked right up until her son arrived, thanks to a host of colleagues who helped her manage the demands of residency and pregnancy. Luke Schoeniger, an associate professor of surgery and oncology, retrofitted a retractor bar—a large metal “guard rail” surgeons lean over to manipulate organs in the abdominal cavity—so that it bent inward, allowing Farkas to sidle up to the table and operate more easily with her growing belly. Likewise, fellow residents gladly filled in for Farkas as needed, especially towards the end of her pregnancy.

Watson says another factor likely contributing to the “approachability” of surgical residency—for women and men alike—is the mandated 80-hour work week for residents in training. Other faculty members cite the growing flexibility found in the medical profession in general.

Colorectal surgeon Jenny Speranza is excited by the trend of more women entering surgery and believes women will to continue to play a larger role in medicine as a whole.

“Women have a lot of good qualities rolled up into one package, and patients really like that,” she says. “They want someone who is compassionate and caring, in addition to being a great surgeon with whom they can communicate openly, and most women fit the bill.”

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