September 21, 2023

In her shoes: Reflections from women in medicine

September is Women in Medicine Month — an annual celebration of women physicians, residents, and students and their accomplishments and contributions in healthcare established by the American Medical Association (AMA). It’s part of a broader national effort to address the ongoing challenges women face in achieving inclusion and equity in medicine. 

At Sound, we strive to provide platforms for those who have faced historical biases to speak about their experience in hopes of fostering a culture of empathy and, ultimately, change for the better. You’ll hear from a few of Sound’s fantastic physicians who have graciously shared their experiences as women in medicine. 

Can you share a pivotal moment or experience that inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?  

Dr. Tong-Mitchell: My grandfather had alcoholic liver cirrhosis and was eventually diagnosed with liver cancer. I grew up with traditional Chinese medicine and was inspired to combine it with modern modalities to “cure all!” Instead of cancer research, my medical path has taken me to the bedside, where I can make a difference, one patient at a time. 

Dr. Jacoby: For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a doctor like my dad. I always loved rounding with my dad on the weekends and watching him take the time to slow down with each patient despite having many more waiting. His patients often thanked him for explaining things in such a way that put their minds at ease and helped them fully understand what was happening. 

Dr. Allen: There was no one a-ha moment when I decided to become a physician. I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was about 5 years old; I’ve simply felt called to do it. When there have been challenges along the way, I return to the ideal of the vocation and feel blessed to have found my calling in helping others. 

Dr. Sharma: My mother inspired me to become a doctor. I saw her care for patients at her clinic on the outskirts of Delhi (India) while I was growing up. I have had the privilege of following in her footsteps. 

Dr. Kohl: I have wanted to be a physician since I was a small child. Science was a huge part of my life growing up, as my dad was a professor of physical chemistry at University of Texas at Austin, and I spent many weekends in his lab playing with liquid nitrogen. (Hook ’em, Horns!) I was always fascinated with how the body worked. I loved going fishing with my grandfather when I was 5 or 6, mainly because I loved it when he would clean the fish and I got to see the guts. 

Can you tell us about a mentor or role model who has significantly influenced your journey as a woman in medicine?  

Dr. Allen: Growing up, I was under the assumption that I could be pretty or I could be smart. Being both wasn’t something women often saw modeled for us in the ’80s and ’90s. That changed when I got to college. Lenore Wright, PhD, is not a medical doctor. Still, she mentored me at Baylor University, where she remains a professor of philosophy and director for the Academy for Teaching and Learning. Her expertise is feminism in popular culture, and through her example, tutelage, and friendship, I learned women can be absolutely anything we want! Strong, intelligent, beautiful, honest, full of integrity and compassion — be who you wish to be as a woman, physician, or leader. 

Dr. Kohl: Ms. Helen Martin was an outstanding high school teacher I had in Austin, Texas. Her anatomy and physiology class was more challenging than any college biology or anatomy class I ever took, and I loved it. Her class solidified that medicine was my future. Another that comes to mind is Dr. Irving Prengler, my first boss and an important mentor for my professional development. He hired me for my first job out of residency. At the time, it was a new concept: inpatient-only medicine. I intended only to do the job for a few years, but I loved being a hospitalist. I owe him so much for his guidance over so much of my career. 

Dr. Jacoby: I would never have survived medical school or residency without the love and support of my incredible and godly husband, Jeremy. He has been and is the most fantastic supporter I could ever hope for. When I was in residency in Pittsburgh, he would bring our sons to visit me at the hospital. During one of those visits, my oldest, Jude, said, “Mommy! Are you a doctor? Wow!! Dat so cool! Can boys be doctors too, mommy?” It was a proud moment for me. 

What keeps you motivated and enthusiastic about your work as a physician, even in challenging times?  

Dr. Allen: A patient getting better is still the absolute best feeling in the whole world! One of the reasons I was drawn to hospitalist work is the rapid improvement we see in patients during their stay and the education we can provide in a short amount of time. The next best feeling is watching physicians on our team grow, whether in their leadership ability or communication skills. Physicians growing their skills makes my heart happy. 

Dr. Tong-Mitchell: I love having the opportunity to nurture our colleagues and advanced practice providers and inspire them to achieve their full potential. I am incredibly proud to say we have had an all-women-led medical director team (five female directors, including myself) in El Paso Hospital medicine programs for the last seven years. 

Dr. Colbert: Serving others during their times of need and witnessing the positive impact my care and words can have on others is, by far, my biggest motivation, and it keeps me enthusiastic to return day after day. 

Dr. Sharma: I love what I do. At the same time, I love and enjoy the time I have with my family. I am proud that I have struck that balance as a woman in medicine. It has not been perfect and certainly isn’t easy, but it is enough. I derive self-affirmation and motivation when I think of the positive impact that I can make every day when I go to work. As a critical care doctor, I often meet people during the worst time of their lives. I feel honored to have the opportunity to impact their lives, to make it better or more accessible for them in any way possible. 

Dr. Kohl: I am driven to improve care for patients. While I love my one-on-one interactions with my patients, I am truly fulfilled by improving the care for all of the patients our hospitalists and our hospital system care for. Identifying the barriers to the safest patient care possible and then collaborating with my hospital partners to address those barriers brings me so much satisfaction. Additionally, I am passionate about helping the members of my team develop as clinicians by being a resource and mentor. I can only hope to honor those mentors who helped me develop as the physician I am today by teaching and leading my team to continuous improvement. 

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to become physicians?  

Dr. Jacoby: I show the same cartoon to my nursing students and team every year. It’s an illustration of a caterpillar talking with a butterfly, and the caterpillar says, “You’ve changed!” to which the butterfly replies, “We’re supposed to.” It helps remind teams that, above all else, we are supposed to grow and change with time. 

Dr. Tong-Mitchell: Lean on the people who believe in you. 

Dr. Allen: Know your value. I don’t just mean your salary; cultivating your value involves investing in yourself, continuing your education, and having hard conversations. If you are valued, your opinions will be heard. Your priorities will be considered. Your concerns make the agenda. 

Dr. Sharma: Be kind to your colleagues — especially other women physicians. We stand upon the shoulders of others so that we can grow to become the foundation for others to stand on. 

Dr. Kohl: I advise my women physician colleagues to remember that being a doctor is hard. Being a mother is hard. And being a spouse is hard. So many of us feel we must do everything perfectly — but that isn’t possible or sustainable. I recommend outsourcing those things that do not bring you joy to allow more time with your family and interests. Often, we physicians try to “do it all” without help. Life is short. Spend less time on chores you do not enjoy and more time on those things that bring you fulfillment and happiness. 

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