I have more hope than ever for women in medicine

Recently, I was a speaker at a conference for 200 physician moms. Most attendees were early- to mid-career. I had to laugh — I was one of the oldest doctor moms in the room. I thought to myself, where are the later-career moms? How many women are quitting medicine mid-to-late career? It is worse than I thought. According to recent research done at the University of Michigan, 40 percent of female physicians, by their sixth year, go to part-time or leave their medical careers completely.

Is anyone else alarmed?! This is a crisis in my mind. Why aren’t we paying more attention to the issue? And who is the “we” I just referred to?

During my talk, as this is one of the first all-female conferences I have attended in ages, I was nervous; triggered by past traumatic training experiences (still 30 years later). I was hot flashing and sweating, so much that I had to remove my outer layer (at a certain age, you know how to dress in layers), and my heart was going a million miles an hour.

What did I have to say?

The speakers were national speakers. Somehow, I am separate and alone, up on that stage … until I look out to see those beautiful faces. I am in awe, appreciating the bad-ass-ness of these woman physicians that actually grow, deliver, and parent children while being a doctor. I saw my own difficult and complex experience in this career.

The jitters worked out; I paused to connect with my younger colleagues and physician coach peers. I said (too loudly and with a shake in my voice): “I think I am the matron elephant of the group!”

The microphone temporarily screeched with that ear-piercing sound of feedback my audience silent. I start again. This time no feedback, but the volume is unbearably loud; “I am the matron elephant of this herd of mothers and auntie elephants!” I continue, volume corrected, and in the next breathless breath, I say, “We’re a herd of female elephants and children, and I see myself as a matron elephant”; rather forcefully, I declare, “I think I have something to say …”

Now, if you know anything about elephants, you know they are commonly observed, in their natural habitat, as families with children, mothers, and aunties. The males leave the family as young bulls and join the hierarchical herds of males, or stay alone (There is a whole other story to tell there).

The matron is one of the oldest in her herd, remembers the various grazing and water sites, dangers, and definitely influences social behavior. She provides the memory and record of the ancestors’ stories.

As the wise one, she is the heart of the herd and is the beloved leader.

These matrons, mothers, and aunties help each other raise their calves and are known to group together (known as “bunching”) around a sister in labor and birth. They are there to protect the soon to be mothers from predators and unfriendly males. Together, they keep watch, bunching and circling around her, gently nuzzling her and each other in concern. They gently kick up the red, dry dirt, and put the dirt over the calf, placenta, and blood — hide the smells of birth. This instinct is necessary to increase the likelihood of the survival of this one infant and young mother, and the overall survival of the herd.

At that moment on the stage of the conference, with my gigantic projected slides on both sides of me, I connect with my audience of accomplished women in my herd. I felt their knowing.

Whatever fear, self-abasement, embarrassment (I did continue to sweat, for full disclosure), and shame at a career fucked up (not said out-loud; there were children present), melted away.

In that instant, I received the knowing that I was an essential part of them — the elder. I took a breath and exhaled to let all of the body sensations and unnecessary, annoying thoughts go, and I began to speak from the heart — as the heart of that herd — about life and the topic, I was there to impart.

I experienced my herd of women physician colleagues newly; as connected to something way more powerful and sustainable than my seeming separateness. They looked up to me with knowing. Each of my sisters and aunties nodding, for they, too, even at their relatively young careers, have bruises, hurts, and stories to tell — stories of feeling separate and trying to survive alone. Stories of loss and danger; in a career that has huge, and at times, negative impacts on the life, family, and health of these women who deeply love their profession and patients.

As my talks concluded, I surrendered to the rush and glow of new-found friends – sisters. My heart was full — filled with expansive love. I belong. I have a purpose in the world of clinical training and the practice of medicine. I have the “soft topic” knowledge, training, and skills that I was castigated for in my training years ago.

Finally, the mostly male hierarchy in medical institutions is starting to see that we must listen and take care of our physicians, especially the mothers, the parents, those with disabilities, and physical and mental health challenges.

It is needed in an urgent way — now. Now, to stave off a crisis. America has lost a generation of quality and competent physicians by discounting women and their voices and experience.

Life is perfect in its imperfection; medicine is not.

After this conference, I have way more hope for our profession and the women in medicine. Women are being heard; the “soft skills” are being implemented. All of us, male and female, are slowly getting to be human. Just human. The herd’s survival hangs in the balance.

Robyn Alley-Hay is an obstetrician-gynecologist and can be reached at her self-titled site, Dr. Robyn Alley-Hay.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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