On Tuesday morning, Dr. Sharona Ross performed what is known as the Whipple procedure to save the life of a patient with pancreatic cancer.
Nurses, technicians, an anesthesiologist and a medical student all flanked Ross, watching for her precise instructions. Across the table was another surgeon, training in the specialized techniques Ross has practiced for years.
A fairly routine scene in a modern American hospital, but for one thing: Both surgeons are women.
About half of all students at U.S. medical schools are women. Yet just 6 percent of those women even consider general surgery, and a tiny fraction of them enter the field.
Ross, 40, director of surgical endoscopy at TGH and an assistant professor at the University of South Florida, says it's crucial that more women follow her lead.
"If half of all graduates are women and so few are going into surgery, we are eventually going to have a shortage of surgeons in this country," she says.
Her concern is so great that in September Ross launched the USF Women in Surgery initiative from her Tampa home. Later this month, Ross, USF and TGH will host a national symposium for women who are or hope to become surgeons. Experts from across the country will converge at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa in St. Pete Beach to share their experiences and advice on the challenges and benefits of breaking through the operating room's glass ceiling.
The 'old boys club'
When women graduate from medical school, most flock to specialties such as internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics.
Some say it's because those specialties might be more family friendly to young women who shy away from a profession that could mean getting called into the hospital at all hours.
But a 2006 article in the journal Archives of Surgery concluded that the real deterrent to women could be the surgical culture. Female residents and medical students were far more likely than men to view surgery as an "old boys club,'' and to perceive sexual discrimination from surgeons. Actually, more men than women said the lifestyle and workload would keep them from choosing a career in general surgery.
It's all about focus
Women may want to attend the symposium at the Don CeSar on Feb. 27 just to hear Ross' own story of how she became a surgeon.
She was born and raised in Israel and served two mandatory years in the military after high school. Ross describes herself as a "Private Benjamin" (remember the Goldie Hawn movie?) when she entered military service: a spoiled, privileged 18-year-old who had no direction in life.
She emerged focused, independent and certain she wanted to become a physician.
Ross met and married a young American who suggested they head to his undergraduate alma mater, American University in Washington, D.C., so she could begin her medical studies, and he could attend law school.
The discipline Ross learned in the Israeli army prepared her well for the hard work ahead. Barely able to speak English, she tape-recorded math and biology lectures and listened to them later, a dictionary by her side, so she could keep up.
That same kind of discipline informed Ross' approach to motherhood. She planned her pregnancies around undergraduate and medical school studies, hospital shift work and interviews for her postgraduate residency.
"I didn't want them to know that I was having children because I thought it would hurt my chances to move my career forward," she says. Her children now are ages 15, 12, 9 and 4.
She and her husband had plenty of help, she explains.
"The secret was my mother. She moved to Washington to help us. That was key."
In the same way, she says finding a mentor willing to coach her through years of surgical training was essential to becoming one of the few women in her field.
The mentor Ross found was Dr. Alexander Rosemurgy, professor of surgery at USF Health and director of surgical digestive disorders at Tampa General. Today the two are professional partners in a practice based at Tampa General that focuses on minimally invasive surgeries in the upper GI tract and disorders of the liver, pancreas and gallbladder.
Ross has become a mentor to women who want to learn surgical skills, and how to juggle school, career and motherhood while climbing the professional ladder.
With efforts like the USF Women in Surgery initiative and the upcoming conference, Ross is optimistic she can help bring more women into general surgery and support those who are already there.
"We want to explore what steers women to or away from surgery,'' she said, "and promote mentoring to advance or enrich their career."
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3416