considering surgery

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    Private message received Aug 4, ’02:

    My name is Angel and you responded to my introduction about a month
    ago. I am a new pre-med right now, 25 years old and very interested in

    I have been reading as many books as I can find on women in the
    surgical field. Some re-occuring themes continue to appear, like how hard it
    is to be a woman in an almost all-male specialty. I wanted to ask you
    what your experiences have been like. Are you treated differently because
    you are a woman by other surgeons, nurses and other staff?

    My other question is regarding the work load after residency. What is
    it like? I am interested in General Surgery and hope to work in a more
    rural area in the future. (I live in a big city right now-don’t like it
    much) How many hours do surgeons put in a week in more rural hospitals?
    What could I expect (roughly) a typical work week to be like? I guess I
    am wondering if the sleep deprivation I keep hearing about in residency
    continues into regular working life! My husband and I don’t intend on
    having children, but I love to spend time outdoors (surfing,
    mountaineering) with my husband, and I know I can’t survive if I have to give this
    up entirely. Do surgeons get “days off”? 🙂

    My last question (thank you so much ) is about contacting
    surgeons in my area. I am very eager to do a job shadow, or just talk to a
    woman in the field, but I have no idea how to go about it! Do you have
    any suggestions about how to go about this?
    Thank you so much for your time. Your story has been a great
    inspiration to me.

    looking forward to hearing from you,

    Hi Angel,

    I hope you don’t mind if I answer your questions on the web; I tend to get a number of private messages from folks asking similar questions. This way other curious premeds can benefit from your inquisitiveness, and I don’t end up answering the same questions a bunch of times.

    Surgery is a great field. I often think to myself that I must have the most interesting job in the world.

    The stresses of being a surgeon are very high. You are literally dealing with life and death, often with a narrow margin for error. Sometimes in surgery we characterize the attitude of a surgeon as “seldom wrong; never in doubt”. You strive for perfection – you have to in order to avoid errors – but because surgery is a field of the execution of deeds, it is imperative that you are able to make a rapid assessment of the situation, and then ACT on it. Oftentimes you are dealing with ambiguous and incomplete data, nonetheless, in order to perform your job – and help the patient – you must decide on a course of action and implement it. Hesitation and second guessing can paralyze you.

    With surgeons, the buck stops here. In the operating room if you get into trouble, or in the trauma bay when a patient is crashing, there’s no one else to call – you are it. If the patient dies or has a bad outcome, you are alone at night in your bed, wondering if you could have done anything differently. Surgeons, as a whole, lose a lot of sleep.

    As far as being a woman in surgery, or in medicine in general, I think that you constantly run up against predjudices, but that as you establish your reputation, that picture replaces the sterotypes people carry in their heads, and it becomes much less of an issue.

    I plan to practice rural surgery, partly because I want to live in the rural western US, and partly because rural surgeons enjoy a much broader practice. When you are the only show in town, you are doing everything that comes through the door. In urban areas, the colorectal surgeons might be taking all the colon cases, the ENT surgeons all the thyroid/parathyroid cases, the vascular surgeons all the vascular cases, the cardiothoracic surgeons all the noncardiac chest cases….. Your practice tends to be much more limited. My idea of a true general surgeon is the kind of practice that a rural surgeon sees. And I like the idea of being the town surgeon…

    Once you are out of residency, you can tailor your practice to suit your expectations and lifestyle. Residency is hell, pure hell, although the ACGME is currently revising things in ways which will make it much more tolerable. The average surgery resident works 110 hours per week; the most I ever worked in one week was 128 hours. We commonly (about twice a week) work 36 to 40 hour shifts, without leaving the hospital, usually without sleep. Soon there will be a 30 hour maximum on the number of hours you can be required to work without rest, BUT that depends on whether your program complies with the mandates, which they often do not.

    The whole reason I came to Iowa was because my program is excellent training AND relatively liveable. We get 2 full weekends off per month – virtually unheard of in surgery training – and take a lot of home call during our senior years. When you apply to programs, absolutely check into whether people are getting days off. The divorce rate is astronomical during surgery residency. If you are literally never home, and then are a sleep deprived psychotic when you do get there, it becomes hard for your spouse to find reasons to stick around.

    As far as shadowing, you might try meeting people by volunteering in the hospital ER or on the surgical floor, which would be a great learning experience in itself. That’s what I did.

    Best of luck!


    I just want to say thanks for that well thought-out reply that you posted. That’s the kind of information we need!


    Ditto!! Great post…all of my questions were answered 🙂



    Wow, thanks for all the pearls of wisdom! (-don’t mind at all that you posted it on the forum)

    I am attracted to rural sugery for the same reasons you stated. I am working on setting up a job shadow through my aunt who is a pre and post-operative nurse. She knows surgeons that I hope will be interested in my project.

    I am going to show my husband your post. My relationship with him is my first priority and I appreciate your being candid about the statistics of divorce. I would like to know what couples have done who did residency and still maintained a good relationship. My husband and I do not intend on having kids, and if we did, I don’t think I would be considering surgery at all. I suppose that having time off to spend together is key, along with mutual understanding of the program’s demands.

    It all seems very intimidating from the outside, almost enough to turn me away from the prospect. But, there is something about surgery itself that intrigues me far more than the other disciplines. I am looking forward to learning more.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to respond!


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