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The Grit Required to Be a Woman In Medicine

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Grit has been described as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” It became the hot topic surrounding surgical residency with some considering it a predictor of risk of attrition. It is amazing to know that you can consistently be told no and told to reconsider and still rise above to chase your dreams. I have grit.

When I was in college on the pre-med track, I had some unpleasant encounters with that dreaded organic chemistry which resulted in a shameful “C”. My guidance counselor told me to find another profession to set my sights on because getting into medical school would be essentially impossible. So I perused other career information sessions, went to the pre-pharmacy meetings, and yet … there was no spark. I stumbled upon another pre-med meeting and felt invigorated again. This was what I wanted to do. How could I have ruined my chances? I felt lost.

Before I knew it, I found myself in the hospital. But I wasn’t the pre-med volunteer any more, I was the patient. It was a new and terrifying experience as I spent two weeks in the hospital, sick for unclear reasons, undergoing multitudes of tests. I developed a personal understanding of what it is to be a patient undergoing daily blood draws, having completely bruised arms, and ultimately getting a PICC line in attempts to alleviate some of the pain that fuels my empathy today. The lead physician on the team taking care of me took that extra step to talk with me about my life and dreams. He saw me as an individual and introduced me to osteopathic medicine.

I learned that I didn’t have to be the cookie cutter applicant which gave me new hope. I worked hard while in the hospital, studying as much as I could and taking online tests so that I could still graduate on time and plan to apply for the next cycle of applicants. It felt amazing when I received not one, but three acceptances. Who would have thought that I would have a choice? I became the first physician in my family.

Fast forward to my third year of medical school when we explore and start preparing for our chosen specialty. I discovered that I was in love with surgery. I had had some relapses here and there requiring short hospitalizations, so my doctor at the time asked if maybe I would consider another specialty because surgery would be extremely difficult, especially if I wanted a life and kids. But I didn’t love anything else. I applied for surgery and matched into my number one program! That day was better than the day I was accepted into medical school.

My experience in residency was unnecessarily difficult. I was singled out at times, told more was expected of me as a woman, and as a DO. I found the interpersonal battles more challenging than learning patient care. Being a quiet minority woman worked against me. It was so emotionally and mentally heartbreaking at times that I actually hoped it was rock bottom so that the only way out would be up. I made a vow that I would persist through it all without losing myself. My happiness in the OR kept me going, so I held on to any small sentiment of gratitude or encouragement and kept my head down.

Luck — or maybe fate — would have it, the program was forced to close for failing to meet accreditation and I found my way to a new program. Despite the stress and the uncertainty, I found myself a new home and family. I continued working just as hard as ever to establish myself and matched into a Colon and Rectal Surgery fellowship in July. I still collect and hold onto small pieces of encouragement — like hearing from my attendings that they would like to work with me when I’m finished with training — for those days that are tougher than others. From medical students thanking me for patience, inspiration, and guidance, to patients that send me thank you notes, to the circulating nurse who was so excited to let me know how highly regarded I was by all the surgeons, and finally to one of my attendings who took the time to give me words of encouragement as one of the best residents he’s ever worked with. 

I am humbled to know this has been a long work in progress and grateful for all those special people in my life who have helped me along the way. Perhaps more importantly, I hope I can inspire and encourage someone else who is told it isn’t possible.

How have you shown grit in medicine? Share in the comments.

Dr. Lai recently matched into colorectal surgery. Her untraditional story helped her become a successful resident.

Image by Denis Novikov / Getty

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