Dr. Eliza Lo Chin. on Her Book “This Side of Doctoring: Reflections from Women in Medicine”

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Recently, INQUARTA sat down to chat with Eliza Lo Chin, author of This Side of Doctoring: Reflections from Women in Medicine. We asked her about how she came to compile this anthology.

“I never dreamed that I would ever publish a book. It was the furthest thing from my mind. I was at Columbia at the time; I was on faculty there, teaching and seeing patients. My husband was a surgical resident. He was still in training, so he was not around a lot, and we had two young children.

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Having one kid is manageable. Having two upsets the balance a bit. I remember how busy it was, going to and from work, using the breast pump, giving instructions to the babysitter, having to get home on time, and at the same time, trying to concentrate on patient care and teaching. I remember feeling somewhat overwhelmed, and thinking to myself that I had known so many women physician mentors in my training as a medical student and as a resident. They all had one or two children, and made it look incredibly easy. I had never even thought about how challenging it might be when I got to that same stage. And so I remember thinking, “It would be nice if there was a forum where women could share their experiences with each other, learn from each other, encourage each other.”

But there really wasn’t any such forum. It was just women colleagues getting together, maybe talking to each other, or you might find a good mentor who could give you some advice.

I read an article called “Doctor’s Daughter” by Julia McMurray…she was the daughter of a woman physician, and her mother had been one of the pioneers in her generation. You know, one of four women in an entire medical school class. She’d married a physician but eventually gave up her own career to rear the children, and Julia never understood why her mom had given up medicine. Only later in her life, when she herself was a mother and a practicing physician, also married to a physician husband, does she realize some of the challenges and struggles.

When I found out that there weren’t any books on the topic, I began to do a lot of research and contact potential contributors. I discovered a whole resource of previously published work from the 1950s and before, from many of the pioneer women physician. Many of these books were out of print, but thankfully, through the Internet you can actually purchase them through used bookstores. I actually managed to get a copy of Elizabeth Blackwell’s book-from the 1850s! So with this whole collection of historical works, I really was able to compare the differences between women who had trained and practiced in the early decades of the 20th century, and how dramatic the changes have been since then.

My initial goal was to compile a book on balancing career and family, but it turned out to be a much bigger project. Medical students sent me very powerful pieces about the journey from a student to a doctor. Women who trained in the 1960s, even the 1970s, talked about some of the particular challenges they faced that I wasn’t even aware of-about the discrimination they faced. The inequalities in pay and rank, feeling that certain specialties weren’t open to them. Whereas when I trained in the 1990s, women were close to 50%. Today, in some medical schools, and in certain specialties and residencies, women are actually a majority. I took internal medicine; I think my residency was about 40% women. So I never felt alone; I never felt ostracized. Really, I’d felt free to pursue any specialty that interested me. That wasn’t always the case.

I graduated from high school in 1985, and I graduated from college in 1989, so this was in the mid-1980s. There wasn’t a sense when I went to school that girls couldn’t be good in science or math. I never felt any doors were closed to me, and I think I was really fortunate in that respect. It was very empowering for young women at that time, whereas a decade earlier, people would have said, “You can’t do medicine-you’re a girl.”

I talk to a lot of pre-med students these days, and I’m always struck by how much more they understand about a medical career. Young women ask me a lot about family and how that factors in. I don’t think we ever thought about that back then. One of the pieces in my book came from a woman named Melanie Watkins. Her dream was to be a doctor; when she got pregnant at the age of 16, she thought it was all over. But she managed to stick with it, even though she didn’t have that much family support. She graduated from Stanford last year, and this is her first year in OB/GYN at UCSF. It’s mind-boggling, kind of amazing, the courage young women have to have to make that sort of decision.”

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