Behind The Scalpel: Meet the women in charge of Dell Med’s general surgery residency program

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Photo Credit: Lauren Ibanez | Daily Texan Staff

Women make up 35.7 percent of general surgical residents in the United States and Canada, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. However, this year, all chief resident positions at Dell Med’s surgical residency program are held by women.

During the fifth and final year of residency, surgical residents act as chief residents and serve as key leaders in the program, said John Uecker, program director of Dell Med’s general surgery residency.

This year, Brittany Bankhead-Kendall, Pamela Daher and Choyin Yvonne Chung are in charge. 

Embracing diversity and tackling bias

Born and raised in Bolivia, Pamela Daher moved to the U.S. when she was 18. She said there were many barriers she faced as a foreigner aspiring to pursue medicine.

“As a foreigner, getting into medical school in the states is extremely hard,” Daher said. “I had to apply to medical school twice and really struggled to prove myself worthy of being in this system.”

Daher said being a woman has also impacted her experience as a surgeon.

“It’s a daily occurrence that most patients don’t think I’m their surgeon,” Daher said. “It’s not because they don’t think I’m capable, but it’s a mental structure most people have grown up with. When I say surgeon, people immediately think male.”

Brittany Bankhead-Kendall said she experiences this phenomenon frequently, which led her to conduct a study on unconscious gender bias in patients.

 

“We interviewed a bunch of surgical patients and found that even though patients said they had no preference for a female or male surgeon, they had an explicit preference for a male surgeon when tested for unconscious bias,” Bankhead-Kendall said. 

As an Asian woman, Choyin Yvonne Chung said she has also experienced gender bias from patients.

“There are little comments that chip away at the professional confidence and persona that we’ve built up,” Chung said. “Even though I may not fit into a stereotypical appearance of what most people think a surgeon looks like, I am mature enough and confident in my skills that it doesn’t bother me as much.”

Balancing family and a surgical career

At five years, general surgery is one of the longest residencies, and the hours of training are much more involved, said Bankhead-Kendall, a mother of two.

“I quickly realized that if I had to be away from my children, I sure wanted it to be worth something,” Bankhead-Kendall said. “If you’re not doing something that completes you or something you enjoy, you’re selling yourself short.”

She said having children weighed on her decision to commit to the specialty.

“In academics, you’re only as good as the number of hours and publications you put in, and all of those take time,” Bankhead-Kendall said. “Early and to the middle of your career, you’re struggling with going home and helping your son with his homework or staying and writing that abstract one more time.”

Changing image of a surgeon 

Bankhead-Kendall said she hopes they are breaking the stereotype of what makes a good surgeon.

“You can have painted fingernails and still operate really well,” Bankhead-Kendall said. “All 3 of us have gone on spa days and talked about everything from dresses for an event to what happened last night in the (operating room).”

Having three female chief residents provides a unique dynamic, Bankhead-Kendall said.

“I think we are unlike any chief class in the country,” Bankhead-Kendall said. “We’re very different in terms of backgrounds and career goals, but we have this common desire to be great surgeons and care for our patients.”

Chung said one piece of advice for aspiring female surgeons is to find other women in their training and lift each other up.

“The network of female surgeons is powerful,” Chung said. “We’re all in it together and we need to collaborate to get farther than where would be on our own.”

Next year, Bankhead-Kendall and Chung will start fellowships in trauma/critical care at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, respectively. Daher will be doing a colorectal surgery fellowship at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.