(CNN)When people introduce me and say I have overcome so much to be where I am, to do what I do … I am still surprised. Particularly at these moments, it strikes me that I am exceedingly fortunate and very lucky to have been given extraordinary opportunities.
Doctor with spina bifida defies expectations
My loving parents refused to take the advice of skeptical doctors when I was born with a closed form of spina bifida (a spine condition). They were encouraged to place me in an institution, go about their lives and have another child. Being Catholic, it struck them as an impossible choice and thus resigned themselves to help me live the best life possible.
Their ability to see me as capable instead of handicapped has permeated my life. Rather than emphasizing what I couldn’t do, I was encouraged to maximize what I could do.
I was fortunate to receive an excellent education. First as an undergraduate at Yale and then at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. When I hear others lauding my accomplishments and emphasizing the obstacles I have overcome, I smile and think about the opportunities my family gave me and the choices I made on this incredible journey.
From an early age, I wanted to be a doctor. Perhaps because I believed that even in the worst economic times, there would still be a need for physicians and I would always be useful.
I also loved science. How organisms work still amazes and delights me. I treasure the continuous journey of discovery in the medical field.
My own journey is an example of just how far we have come in our understanding of spina bifida. It comes in many forms and outcomes can vary. Thus, when I read my own chart, I was struck by the pessimism of its opening line: “This unfortunate 5 month old infant.”
Because there were no role models exactly like me, I felt the freedom to find my own path. Medicine is always about the patient and our ability to help that patient, so I have worked hard to be certain my skills matched the job at hand.
Neurosurgery excites me intellectually and I still find the nervous system the most beautiful organ. I was dumbstruck by the first neurosurgical operation I saw as a medical student, and still find I am excited whenever I enter the operating room.
I have worn a leg brace and built-up shoe most of my life. I had several surgeries as a child and learned to walk on three separate occasions. I have been a patient at various points in my life and remember those times vividly. I draw on that experience as I treat my own patients.
Most recently, I began to gradually lose function in my legs and required another operation. I sought the advice of many neurosurgeons and knew the complexity of the anatomy. Like all patients, I was hoping — no expecting — a perfect outcome. But I am now in a wheelchair and have to modify what I do as a surgeon to remain safe and effective.
People often ask me which has been harder — being a woman neurosurgeon or having a disability as a surgeon. Being a woman was more difficult.
When I applied for neurosurgical residency, I was usually the first woman applying. I was the first woman accepted at Columbia. Across the years, I have experienced sexist jokes and the endless all-male meetings where I have heard the salutation “Gentlemen.” I have experienced sexual harassment and been told I didn’t need a raise because I wasn’t married and didn’t have children.
When I was appointed chair of neurosurgery at the University of Michigan in 2005, I was the first woman in the United States to have such a position. Eleven years later, I remain the only woman to chair a neurosurgery department.
An estimated 20 percent of residents in neurological surgery are now women. I have always chosen to work from within to create change and believe I can now see the outcome of these efforts.
I am still wildly in love with neurosurgery but realize I have had many advantages that allowed me to pursue my dreams. Besides my parents, I have been blessed with a loving husband and two great kids, friends who were honest critics and ardent supporters, colleagues who sustained me through the transitions of my career and, most importantly, patients who judged me on the quality of my work and allowed me the privilege to treat them and their loved ones. I have been in practice long enough to have patients send me notes about graduations, marriages and babies.
I know life is not about overcoming, but about following the voice inside you.