Role Call: Real Women in Surgery

Dr. Katie Fuchs is an Orthopedic Surgery Resident in VT

Dr. Katie Fuchs is an Orthopaedic Surgery Resident at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center

Role Call is a Petal + Sass blog section featuring interviews with professional young women occupying diverse careers – and their advice to teens.

Name: Katie Fuchs

Age: 31

College & major: Middlebury College, Neuroscience and Music

Graduate school & concentration: Albany Medical College, Medical Degree with Distinction in Service

Past jobs: Waitress, White Water Rafting Guide, Summer Camp Counselor for Sick Kids, Music Librarian, Pizza/Chicken Wing Delivery Girl, Ski Patroller, Wilderness EMT

Current occupation: Orthopaedic Surgery Resident at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. I graduate after this year, then do a one year fellowship in Pediatric Orthopedic Surgery before getting a “real job” as a Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgeon.

How did you become involved in medicine- specifically surgery? I decided I wanted to be a doctor when I was around six. I have always liked helping people and fixing things – two things that you do a lot of in orthopedic surgery. I remember I would rescue drowning bugs from puddles or birds that had flown into windows. I would take apart and reassemble my dad’s short-wave radios. I always liked hearing other people’s problems and trying to help fix them. Becoming a doctor seemed like a logical choice.

I applied to Albany Medical College “early decision” in my sophomore year of college, and got in! It was great because I knew what I wanted to do and could spend the rest of my college years just looking forward to it rather than worrying about applying. When I got to Albany Med I thought I wanted to be a pediatric infectious disease doctor. I love kids and I love to travel. It seemed like a good fit. As I learned more about different medical fields I found that my personality fit in much better with the surgeons. I liked to fix things with my hands and found the people and practice of surgery fun. I realized that orthopedics was a great fit for me when I met a pediatric orthopedic surgeon – Dr. Dutkowsky. He loved his job and took incredible care of his patients. Pediatric orthopaedic problems were interesting to me and very applicable for my international interests. The patients are fun to help and the work is extremely gratifying. I applied and was accepted to the Dartmouth Orthopaedic Residency program, and here I am now, writing this with my scrubs on.

What was your college experience like, and how did it prepare you for your career? My college experience was awesome. I ski raced for a lot of my life prior to college, so I decided to try out for the Middlebury Ski Patrol. It was the greatest thing I did during college. I met some of my best friends and had an awesome social circle. Anyone who knows me well knows that I had (and still have) pretty incredible ADD. In college I signed up for anything and everything that piqued my interest. I was in the sailing club, fly fishing club, steel drum band, organic farming club, and latino dance club. I was a radio host and a music librarian. I had a great time.

So how did this prepare me for my career? It taught me the importance of balance. Middlebury was no joke when it came to studying and I take enjoying my life pretty seriously. In between all of the fun stuff I was studying harder than I had ever studied before. I learned to budget my time, treat myself to fun study breaks and make sure I did not get too bogged down with the serious stuff while still staying focused. My busy college schedule taught me to follow through with commitments and to cherish the good friends I made. These life skills are still so helpful in my current life.

What is life really like in medical school? It may not seem believable, but I think I had even more fun in medical school than I did in college. I found an awesome group of friends and we spent a lot of time together. The people really made medical school fun for me. The further along you travel in life, the more your crowd becomes more similar to you.

For me, medical school was a different kind of learning than college. I did a lot more independent learning and less classroom learning. The information you are expected to absorb and synthesize is enormous in med school (a lot of people say it’s like “drinking from a fire hose”), but with time and effort you can pack it all into your brain. Unlike college, the material you are learning in med school is a lot of memorization. You are rarely asked to think creatively because it is so fact based. I had to come up with strategies to continue being creative in my free time, like playing music or doing pottery; I know this balance outside of medicine was and still is essential for me to stay happy and grounded.

What do you love most about surgery? I love orthopedic surgery because you give your patients the gift of improved function every day. You use your mind and hands to fix problems and you can really see the results in a tangible way. Here’s an example: recently, one of my patients with a severe birth palsy (a condition where the nerves in your arm do not work well) came to her appointment after surgery. She was sitting on the exam room table crying and brushing her hair. She was crying because she had never used that arm to brush her hair before and she wanted to show me she could do it. It was awesome. There is nothing better than a hug from a patient like that.

Do you feel that women are stigmatized in your field? What obstacles have you noticed or experienced, if any? I think our gender gives us a special set of stresses and considerations that are not necessarily experienced by men. Until I became an orthopedic resident I really was blissfully unaware of my gender. At no point in my life did I ever think that I could not do something based solely on the fact that I have ovaries. Today, as a surgeon, I am more aware of my gender because people occasionally point it out. This does not change the fact that I still know I am capable.

I am currently in a program where there happens to be “a lot” of female surgeons (20% women). Many people still notice my gender because I am an outlier. Here’s a common example: I introduce myself to a patient as “Dr. Fuchs” and often a few sentences later my patient will refer to me as “their nurse”. I believe almost everyone who makes these comments has benign intentions. If you just approach it with a sense of humor and show people what you are capable of doing, patients and colleagues will come to trust and respect you for your qualities and stop noticing you for your gender.

Also, while I know many males and many females who do not fit these stereotypes, I do think that female surgeons often have a benefit of naturally excellent communication skills and genuine compassion. This “motherly instinct” (if you want to call it that) can really reach patients in a unique and healing way.

Another set of potential female surgeon stressors have to do with life and family considerations. If you decide to pursue surgery you will also likely be approaching 30-something years old – a time when you might begin to think about marriage and babies. Many women are nervous about having babies during residency, but the good news is others are paving the way. If you do choose to have babies during residency, I think it’s important to, once again, cut yourself a break. Don’t beat yourself up if pumping 100 bottles of breast milk and doing a photo shoot of your babies first hair cut is not on the top of your agenda everyday. Hire good help and marry someone amazing. Your life does not have to stop just because you are in surgical residency and, in fact, I would strongly encourage anyone who pursues this path to make sure they have a life outside of work.

What advice would you give to girls considering a career path in medicine?

1) Shadow a surgeon! Most doctors love to teach and they are pumped that you are excited about what they are excited about. They will be happy to show you the ropes. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes doing what they do but with your own personal flair.

2) Find a mentor – someone who has been through the process and can answer your questions.

3) Ignore the nay-sayers. The Debbie-Downers who say “medicine is not like it used to be” and “insurance premiums are at an all time high!” Waaaah waaaah. Maintain your idealism, grab the world by the nuggies and do whatever it is you want to do. Take what the Debbie-downers say with a grain of salt and keep your eyes on the prize, girls. No matter what people say, being a doctor is still one of the greatest jobs in the world.

4) Balance. Find it, cherish it. Pick something you love outside of your future work and make it a part of your life, forever.

5) Treat yourself to breaks and don’t be too hard on yourself.

6) Find humor in everything and practice happiness every day. You cannot always control what happens, but how you perceive what happens is your choice. Teach yourself how to see the good in things and your experience will be colorful and fun.

What would you wear to a job interview? An interview is not the time to stand out for your appearance. You do not need to look like a nun or an 80-year-old diplomat, but make it difficult for anyone to see any piece of your boobs. I suggest conservative heals, an at/just above the knee skirt or pants, and a blouse. Make sure when you walk away from the interview, your interviewers say “Hey… remember that girl who started that program in Kenya?” and not “Hey… remember that girl with the pleather pants and leopard print top?” Demonstrate your character though your conversation, not through your clothes. And then, as soon as you leave, put your leopard print shirt back on.

Any favorite websites particular to your field? For advice for medical students and residents in orthopedic surgery there is a website http://www.orthogate.org. If you click around there are great forums on different topics that are helpful.

Looking back, what general life advice would you give to your former high-school self? If I could meet my former self I would tell her two things: be weird and write more. I’ll explain…

I remember in 7th and 8th grade instances where someone called me “weird” – probably because I had some “weird” hobby or made a “weird” joke. I remember not liking it and, for a short period of time, I remember trying to not be “weird” and just fit in. In hindsight, I believe being “weird” is actually an incredible compliment. I think the most horrifying thing someone could tell me today is that I am “normal”. In high school it can feel really important sometimes to be “normal”, fit in and be accepted. I would encourage every young lass out there to embrace your inner weirdness. Play your multicolored recorder in a band. Learn about art and music and the world. Get pumped about making cheese. Try everything and regret nothing. People will accept you and grow to adore you for your “weird” true self and you will feel free from the suffocating and imaginary expectation to just be “normal.”

As for writing, in the times in my life I have been stressed, I have found great value in writing. I have kept a journal since I was about 14 and, even though I write a fair bit, I wish I wrote more. It’s a great way to check in with myself, examine my values and capture memories. I imagine myself as a little old lady reading it someday and smiling.

Any other relevant info or words of wisdom: Remember that happiness truly is a choice. Check in with yourself every day and teach yourself to actively appreciate the awesomeness around you. For example: I have terrible allergies and on the days when my nose is not plugged I really focus on appreciating how awesome it is to breath out of my nostrils. Seems crazy, but it is so important to actively engage your happiness every single day. An active appreciation and awe of life will lift you up in the hardest times.

And also, become a surgeon, because it’s awesome.

Click here to view more ‘Role Call’ interviews with inspiring professional women.

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