I come by many things in my life naturally — my stubbornness, my red hair, and my career. I am very fortunate. Unlike many I am the daughter of a female emergency physician. This is something I never really considered while growing up. Yes, my mom was a doctor. Did she save lives? I guess so. She didn’t spend much time talking about life outside of the home, and she was still present for many holidays, birthdays, etc. All I knew was that someday I too would be a doctor. When I refused to set foot in the ED (where she worked and I had visited many times) she simply brought the supplies home to repair my lacerated chin. When I had a fever and abdominal pain, I recall the look in her eyes when she recognized my appendicitis. But, that was life in our home. She did not bat an eye when we injured ourselves, because, she’d seen worse. After attending an all-female high school, she went on to join the first class at Loyola College of Maryland (now Loyola University) to allow women, attended University of Maryland for medical school, and ultimately became board certified in Emergency medicine, which was not an available residency when she trained.
My mother is the product of a woman who supported her throughout her life. My maternal grandmother, a homemaker, raised eight children (1 female), but fervently supported their pursuit of happiness. She encouraged each child to enter the field of his or her choosing, and so they did. When I announced that I too wanted to be a physician, she talked of helping soldiers and her great desire to have had a similar opportunity in her day. My paternal grandmother was similar. Before raising her seven children, she coached one of the first female teams to play at Boston Gardens. She too wanted whatever her children wanted. These women, though local in their impact, are the foundations of how I felt comfortable choosing my path.
In my all-female high school, we were never directly told that there were any barriers to the achievements of women. Instead, we simply learned, and obstacles to achievement were not even mentioned — because, in their minds, they should not exist. When I reminisce with my closest classmate (also a female physician in pulmonology/critical care) we find it strange to think of this philosophy, but it seemed to have worked, for nearly all of us.
In 2007, I followed in my mother’s footsteps matriculating at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and afterward completed the 5-year emergency medicine-pediatrics residency offered there. After graduation, my mother and I were able to study for our boards/recertification together, an experience few people are able to share with a family member. Now we can ask each other clinical questions, share advice, and commiserate. I have always been able to look up to her for an understanding of the dedication and drive it takes to be a female physician, and now I can directly comprehend what that choice meant for her, and for us as her children.
As I have progressed forward in my career through residency, I have become increasingly more aware of the ongoing divide between male and female involvement, pay, and support. The motivation of the female faculty through the Women in Emergency Medicine (EM) group at University of Maryland during my residency truly resonated with me. My greatest mentors came from that group of women, as did my greatest cheerleaders. When I accepted a faculty position at the University of Rochester, I joined a conveniently named group of Strong (hospital’s name) women. One of my earliest questions was about a women’s group within the department. I was told they sometimes got together, but there wasn’t a defined group. I made it my mission to start building this up. I started by asking other attendings and residents about their interest in having a group. With the help of two colleagues, we began by having a meeting, which has sprung quickly into regular events, which involve discussion, activities, and community support. We are fortunate to have a chair who believes in our goals and encourages the camaraderie. I have learned that even just a few months out of residency, anyone can start a women’s group within their department. We have been asked to start assessing and addressing unique issues for women in the department, such as the variations of support needed if a woman chooses to have a family. We have also begun to reach out to the community to see what and where our group can help.
In reflecting, I recognize how fortunate I have been throughout my life thus far to achieve these goals in such short order. I am particularly grateful for the foundation established by my family and my education. I am proud to be a second generation FemInEM, and know I owe so much to growing up with women in EM.
Kathleen Stephanos is an emergency physician. This article originally appeared in FeminEm.
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