Surviving the medical career journey with humor and kindness
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of Progress Notes posts featuring Baylor College of Medicine students interviewing physicians and faculty members in recognition of Women’s History Month.
Dr. Mary Brandt is a professor of surgery, pediatrics and medical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine and a pediatric surgeon at Texas Children’s Hospital. A former program director and senior associate dean of Student Affairs, she is an accomplished medical educator. In the following Q&A, she reflects on her experiences during medical school, residency and the years since.
Was there a particular experience that led you to medicine?
I was a premature baby, and I suspect that has something to do with going into medicine and pediatric surgery. When I was born, the pediatrician told my family I had a 50/50 chance of survival. He told them not to name me until they knew for sure I was going to survive. My doctor was T. Berry Brazelton, who my parents had no idea was a famous Harvard pediatrician.
I communicated with Dr. Brazelton throughout my childhood and adolescence, and I suspect there was an initial pull towards medicine based on the stories I heard about him. But it wasn’t until the end of college that it became clear to me that I would apply to medical school.
You graduated from the University of Texas with a liberal arts degree. How does this relate to what you’re doing now?
I’ve always loved liberal arts, particularly writing and theology. I’ve actually gone back to school to get a masters of divinity degree. I’m interested in burnout and physician wellness, and I’ve come to realize that it’s not just about doing more yoga and eating vegetables. There’s a spiritual disconnect between why we do our jobs and how we view that work – that’s a big part of the stress we face. I decided to go back to school to better understand those issues and learn a new vocabulary.
How did you decide on surgery as a specialty?
I did my surgery rotation first in medical school to get it out of the way, because I knew I wasn’t going to be a psychiatrist, a pathologist, or a surgeon. I had this image that surgeons were not as smart, were mean and yelled all the time. Then I met my first attending, David Feliciano.
We’d talk about complex medical issues as well as the patient’s surgical problems. I realized he treated his profession like internal medicine with the ability fix problems. On the third day of my rotation, I remember putting on a gown and gloves and having this sudden epiphany that this is what I would be doing. Then I spent three years trying to find anything else.
Why was that?
Well, I was the only woman for all five years of residency and the third woman to finish the general surgery residency at Baylor, so I really tried hard to love something else. I loved internal medicine and pediatrics, but many patients would have chronic illnesses that were heartbreaking to me, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything to help.
If they had a surgical problem, they’d go off to surgery and I’d watch them down the hall as they were going. I just kept getting pulled to it. I realized at that time that if I didn’t try surgery, I would regret it.
Did you encounter any significant barriers to starting a career in surgery?
When I interviewed for residency, one interviewer asked me why they should give me a position when I was just going to get married, have babies and quit. I looked at him and said, “If you can tell me why that question has any bearing on what kind of surgeon or resident I will be, I will be happy to answer it.” He backed down after that.
At the time, women were not put up for membership in the American College of Surgeons and were not pushed to get promoted. But I had two key mentors, Dave Feliciano and Stanley Dudrick, who I would go to frequently. They were not only mentors, they were sponsors. They had my back, they cared, and that’s probably the most important aspect of being a mentor.
You supported the founding of a chapter of the Association of Women Surgeons at Baylor in 2017. What advice do you have for women who are building their careers in surgery?
It’s an absolutely incredible, fantastic career. Don’t hesitate. When it comes to issues of fairness, one of the key weapons you need to have is humor. People respond to friends, not enemies.
In our society, there are a few privileged groups: white, male, straight, cis-gendered and abled. We’ve made huge progress, but a lot of this unrecognized privilege is subconscious, which means it’s still there and disproportionately affects groups that aren’t privileged. Women have to stand up for each other, have each other’s backs and be sponsors for each other.
What is the legacy you would like to leave behind?
Kindness. I always tell people the only three things you have to do to be a surgeon is do what’s right for the patient, look cool doing it, and don’t hurt anything that has a name.
‘Do what’s right for the patient’ has no exceptions, whether you’re tired, whether you’re getting paid or not. ‘Look cool doing it’ is deliberate practice. It’s finding the things you’re weak at and deliberately working on them rather than repeating the things you’re already good at.
The last one, ‘don’t hurt anything that has a name’ is, of course, don’t cut the ureter if you’re taking out the colon. But you have a name, your significant other has a name, your institution, your colleagues, your patients all have names.
-By Emilie Warren, third-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine