Preeti R. John, MD, MPH, FACS
Gordian Knot Books,
Paperback, 337 pages, $29.00.
In this 337-page compilation of personal essays, poems, and interviews, 60 female surgeons of varying age, race, and surgical discipline recount what it means to be a ''female surgeon'' or, in some cases, lessons learned about being a surgeon irrespective of sex. The essays are succinct, extremely well edited, and some phenomenally well written. Each essay pleasantly ends with an ''inspiring quotation.'' Although 69 essays, interviews, and poems on similar topics start to feel repetitive, each contributor has an important story to tell, and they each deserve the stage they are given. Perhaps read the book in pieces, as it was composed, and the similarities will instead feel as novel as they did to each writer.
The contributions range from light-hearted to heartbreaking, but there is a human tendency to reflect on real events through the warm glow of rose-colored lenses. In the midst of blatant sexual harassment (physical and verbal) and frank sexist discrimination, many contributors proclaim they ''wouldn't have changed a thing!'' Such remarks make the retrospective lens seem not just colored but rather warped. Still, these experiences, good and bad, are what shape whom we become, and for many who pick up this book, they will be searching for hope of what is possible not necessarily reminders of what is iniquitous.
Importantly, Being a Woman Surgeon is not all ''sunshine and roses.'' One contributor's (Claire Cronin's) dry sense of humor depicts a time of inherent biases not just in surgery, but also in the world. I was relieved when she wrote, ''The most impartial stakeholders are the patients. The sicker the patient the more gender blind they are,'' as it reminded me that regardless of the obstacles, insecurities, or convoluted motivations we face, the patients are why we come to work. Another contributor, Carol Sawmiller, spends her precious few pages discussing a patient's negative view of her and how that has positively influenced her treatment of others. A third contributor, Kerry Bennett, details life when she was no longer a surgeon because of the critical illness of her son. She describes it as ''the best thing that ever happened'' to her, reminding us that there is also important work to be done in life, not just in the hospital. These honest moments among many others temper whatcould have been a trend towards glorification of both reality and challenges. This is the beauty of this book—many of the statements in these pages need no embellishment or flare to leave the reader astounded by what is possible, despite all conceivable impediments. However in giving each woman a platform to voice what it means to her to be a surgeon, we are reminded as another contributor, Sarah Cross, so poignantly states, ''medicine is a human endeavor besieged with the limitations of humanity.'' As a result, their stories are both relatable and intangible because of the dual nature of surgery's most human and super-human qualities.
What is plainly stated and rarely exaggerated is a common theme of mentorship, with many contributors recalling chief residents or senior surgeons (both male and female) who influenced them, encouraging them to pursue their interests in surgery. For anyone who lacks such a champion in any career path, perhaps this book can fill that purpose. In its varied pages, this book holds the voices of reality, hardship, failure, and eventual triumph and success. I imagine any minority could relate to the contributors and to the sensation of being a ''token'' or ''the only one'' who ''does not have to work hard to have her presence noted but does have to work hard to have her achievements noted.'' (a quotation from the strikingly insightful Foreword written by anthropologist Joan Kassel—an unbiased student of women in surgery who confirms what could be seen as folklore to instead be undeniable fact and was perhaps my favorite part of the book).
This book could also be useful for any non-medical family member or any residency program director or colleague who wants to understand what ''life as a woman surgeon is like.'' I am sure many think they know, but whether they are excluded from the closed doors of the operating room or from the protected thoughts of their female colleagues, this book gives them entry to a truth that is often unspoken for fear of sounding weak or ''too feminine.'' With a glossary of medical terms included, the book becomes accessible to anyone with an interest. Unequivocally, this is not a book for women surgeons only—it is a book for anyone looking for wisdom and inspiration.
Johanna N. Riesel
Department of Surgery
Massachusetts General Hospital
Department of Plastic and Oral Surgery
Boston Children's Hospital
The Program in Global Surgery and
Harvard Medical School