Trailblazing in surgery and medicine: Interview with Dr. Mary Brandt

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Dr. Mary Brandt is a professor of surgery at Tulane University School of Medicine and a Distinguished Emeritus professor of surgery, pediatrics and medical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine. She will complete her Master of Divinity from the Iliff School of Theology in June. Dr. Brandt is an award-winning author and teacher, and she inspires healthcare professionals to take care of themselves and share in the joy of medicine.

She mentored me for my Albert Schweitzer fellowship, guiding me through establishing weekly health workshops for Congolese refugees.

In the following interview, she shares some of her experiences and passions as a woman in surgery.

Q: How did your journey to medicine begin?
A: I went to the University of Texas as a plan II major, which is a liberal arts degree. I have always loved theology, English, and history, as well as science. I spent most of college considering various professions, but medicine was always in the back of my mind. Ultimately, I think we all have some paths we follow, some we choose and others we are supposed to be on. I think the latter was the case for me.

Q: What are some of your favorite moments from your career?
A: After medical school, I matched at Baylor, and I was the only woman for all of residency. I was the third woman who ever finished the program. I was also the first woman to be a full professor of surgery at Baylor and the 39th woman in the United States to hold the title. When I was growing up, my father’s rules for me were simple – “Do what’s right.” When I was promoted to full professor, I had a ball cap made for him with “39” on the front, and “Do what’s right” on the back.

I have had so many great moments in my career. There are so many individual patients with whom I have developed deep relationships. I cherish helping them get through complicated situations – and then having them send me their high school graduation picture. I am also proud of my mentees and their incredible work.

Q: Can you tell us about your work in the community with FAM Houston and the Albert Schweitzer Fellows program?
A: For me, healing goes beyond medicine. The Albert Schweitzer Foundation creates a platform for students with different healthcare backgrounds to go into and help communities. As for FAM Houston, it is a true gift that I fell into this wonderful community as an internship requirement for my graduate program. I’ve been part of the community ever since.

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Dr. Mary Brandt

Q: Did you face any unique obstacles in your training and career?
A: Like racism, sexism and homophobia are and were systemic issues in society and for my training. I had privilege being white with college-educated parents but faced discrimination as a woman and specifically as a lesbian.

That experience taught me to call discrimination what it is. I spent years not speaking up, and I regret that now. I also learned to find and celebrate the allies who will help you call it what it is, the only way we can make the needed systemic changes. Also, in a hierarchical system like medicine, you cannot always call people out the way you would like. Instead, I have learned that humor can be the most powerful weapon in the moment.

In a hierarchical system like medicine, you cannot always call people out the way you would like. Instead, I have learned that humor is our most powerful weapon in the moment.

I was called one day to scrub to watch one of the vascular surgery program associates operate. I was the fifth person in line (at the patient’s toes), where I couldn’t see anything. The senior resident was lifting up the ice-cold heart, so the doctor could perform a coronary bypass – but the heart slipped a little. The senior resident was sent from the operating room, and the next resident moved up to hold the heart. This kept happening until I was the only one left.

I decided I was just going to prove to him that I could do it, and so I did. Much to my dismay, I was then called to the OR every day for the rest of the rotation to hold ice-cold hearts! Several days into this, he looked at me and said, “Just hold that heart, honey.” I still don’t know where it came from, but I responded, “Okay, sweetheart.” The whole OR stopped… and he started laughing.

He came in the next day and said, “Mary, I have proof why the male brain is superior to the female brain,” I sighed and said, “What’s that?” He replied, “Name one female composer.” I knew I could not lecture him on the oppression of women in the music industry. Instead, I sacrificed my only night of sleep between two calls to make a cassette tape containing pieces by 27 women composers. I took it in the next day and gave it to him. He didn’t say a word – but he played it every day.

Q: Given how demanding a career in surgery can be, what keeps you going?
A: In the big picture, it’s knowing I’m where I’m supposed to be. People find strength in different places, but I believe it’s an issue of context. We all need something bigger than us, particularly when things get tough. In pediatric surgery, we say we’re in the business of saving lifetimes, not lives. No matter how hard my day is, a child in the hospital is having a harder day. My actions can have a lifelong impact. So, I connect those thoughts to compassion for that patient.

I still have horrible days, but they matter, and then they pass. When we’re in really horrible times, we think they’re going to last forever. However, the hard times don’t last.

Q: What advice do you have for medical students and physicians in training?
A: All we need to know about medicine can be summarized in three rules: 1) Do what’s right for the patient, 2) Look cool doing it, and 3) Don’t hurt anything that has a name.

‘Do what’s right’ for the patient has no exceptions. ‘Look cool doing it’ means clearly master your field – that’s the deliberate practice part. You have to work harder on the things you don’t like to become a master in anything. This applies to the physical performance of medicine, whether it’s how to listen to someone’s chest or operate on them, all requiring practice. It also means don’t lose your cool. Have that centered, calm space you can go to when things get crazy. ‘Don’t hurt anything that has a name’ is why you study anatomy. But it’s important to also remember – you have a name, your institution has a name, your significant other and friends have names.

Q: What inspired you to pursue formal training in theology?
A:  I have always been interested in theology, but my interest is also about my experiences as a program director, dean student affairs, and mentor. I began to realize that when people derail, it tends to be for the same reasons. It is partially self-care and all the other aspects of “wellness” prominently discussed today.

However, these things are necessary but not sufficient. There is a core problem of “why” we are here, a deep understanding that allows us to carry suffering without injury. I needed a different vocabulary to think about that, so I went back to school.

Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A: Teaching has some of the joy of theater. I never did drama in high school or college. In fact, I almost didn’t enter academic medicine out of fear of public speaking! But, once you get past the fear, there is joy in rehearsing something and then delivering it well enough that people learn. I think that feeling is probably similar to the joy actors and musicians have in performing.

However, unlike a play or music, teaching medicine means imparting something that can make a difference in other people’s lives. So, it’s this great combination of joy in the act of teaching and in the purpose of doing it. I can do 5000 hernias in my lifetime as a surgeon. But if I do 5000 hernias while teaching 500 residents how to do it, there is a ripple effect that brings even more joy.

-By Dina Zamil, first-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine

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