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Published September 25, 2013, 10:00 PM

Positively Beautiful: Women in medicine, and me

The American Medical Association declares each September Women in Medicine Month with the goal of increasing the influence of women physicians and advocating for women’s health issues.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, INFORUM

The American Medical Association declares each September Women in Medicine Month with the goal of increasing the influence of women physicians and advocating for women’s health issues.

Over history, women were restricted from the profession of medicine, though they have always been on the frontlines of healing, as family care givers, nurses and midwives.

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States, and over the 19th and 20th centuries, women made significant gains in access to medical education and professional practice. In some cases, they started their own medical schools and hospitals when established medical institutions wouldn’t admit them.

In 1969, 9 percent of U.S. medical students were women. In 1976, this number had grown to 20 percent, and in 1990, when I was in medical school, 35 percent of my class was women. Today, women make up 50- 51 percent of medical school classes, and approximately 27 percent of practicing physicians are women.

I’ve thought back on my decision to go to medical school. I was certainly influenced by my physician father and my mother, a nurse. As the oldest child, I was often called on to be a care giver and helper, and medicine seemed a natural fit.

I also appreciated that there was a well-defined path: Take these classes, get really good grades and do some hands on work by volunteering or working in a health care setting. If you follow this recipe, mix in a bit of good luck, then show up every day, and drink from the fire hose of information and experiences blasted at you without drowning, you’ll find yourself eventually adding the letters M.D. behind your name.

I thought I would be a pediatrician, but somehow along the way I was entranced by surgery.

I did some sewing as a child and exhibited a couple of fancy 4-H aprons at the Red River Valley Fair. I even bought patterns for making clothes at Northport’s Ben Franklin store, yet the end product disappointed me. I think it was because I didn’t look like the stylized drawings of the girls wearing the clothes on the pattern package.

But surgery was a lot more than sewing, of course, and I liked having multiple ways of addressing problems. I ultimately chose my specialty because I got to work with children and adults, and that there were many issues I could help solve: sinuses, allergies, sleep, hearing and cancer. I also loved the artistry of facial cosmetic procedures and the self-esteem boost they gave to patients.

I chose this profession despite the fact that it was very sexist. I went to medical school in Dallas, where the men’s locker room was labeled “Doctors” and the women’s locker room was labeled “Nurses.” In order to go to the doctor’s lounge to discuss cases pre-op, I would have to go through the men’s locker room. I made sure to always knock loudly.

I did a great job in orthopedics but was told that it was not a good specialty for women. The lone female ortho resident was ridiculed because she fainted after a busy night on call and no time for breakfast.

Training through medical school and residency is tough on everyone, regardless of gender. But I think there are some extra challenges as a woman in medicine that I didn’t think about before I entered.

Medical training is happening during peak times for developing long-term romantic partnerships and having families. It is not impossible, but not easy to date, marry and have kids during training.

I’m in a group of 16 women physicians called Whole Health Medicine Institute. Our ages range from late 30s to early 50s. Half are childless, a few by choice, some by circumstance. Of those who do have kids, infertility and premature birth was an issue for some. I married late, had two miscarriages and feel blessed I was able to adopt my child.

On the home front, balancing the roles of doctor, mom, wife, friend and community participant is tricky. Some of us still have the mentality of “I can do it all,” to the detriment of our health and sanity.

Some women physicians have worked out a part-time schedule that suits their professional practice and family life. Others have spouses who assume the “household management” role. My life has been blessed with wonderful nannies who have helped with my son and the house, and a flexible husband, except during planting and harvest on the farm.

In academic medicine, the hallowed halls that train new doctors and do research, few women make it through the ranks. Of those who do, 50 percent report discrimination and harassment. Studies also show their salaries are 25 percent less, even when controlled for variables such as patient mix and insurance payers.

It would be interesting to study these issues in the context of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.” Women are known to be less aggressive in negotiating pay and asking for raises. Or are we subtly sabotaging ourselves in this arena?

My hope is that more women in medicine will challenge the system and culture, in training and in practice.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.