From the Tennis Court to the Operating Room, how my experience as a camp counselor prepared me to be an Orthopaedic Surgeon
In 2019, women continue to make up less than 10% of practicing orthopaedic surgeons in the USA. I made the decision to pursue a career in this male dominated profession at the age of 24. I was young and fearless. I am getting older, and I am trying to reach back to my 24 year old self to understand who I was and what made me think that it was a good idea to immerse myself in the challenge of surrounding myself with mostly men. This summer I have had time to reflect, as I have returned to the place that I spent my summers during those influential years.
During college, I spent 2 summers as a counselor at a sports camp in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Camp Lenox was established in 1917 as a boys camp. In the late 1980s, the camp opened to girls. In 1991, there was a small girls camp embedded within the boys camp, making up about 10% of the campers and counselors. This was my first summer as a tennis counselor. Of the 15 tennis counselors, I was the only woman.
I had to prove myself as an athlete every day. But every evening I went back to my cabin full of young women. And these female counselors and campers were pure fun. Many were fierce athletes. Some were not. Some were artistic or brainy, and the crew was a motley one. The thing we all had in common was fast friendship and loyalty… We knew how to stick together.
I made some unlikely friends that summer. My co-counselor was a fast talking incredibly intelligent woman named Michelle Gomez (GoGo). She had big Long Island hair. I learned immediately that NOONE messed with GoGo. She gave me a once over when I arrived, unimpressed with my Williams College Lacrosse T shirt, ripped up jeans, and Birkenstocks. Her hair was perfectly curled and her scrunchy rocks matched her tank top. She was fun and established. ]It was clear that she was in charge, both socially and in her job description. One of my best friends from high school joined me. She had just finished her Sophomore year at Duke. She was a great soccer player, and was unfazed by being the only woman among the male soccer staff. We also met a soft-spoken midwesterner who worked on the waterfront named Jennifer Hanson. She and I came from different parts of the country, from different kinds of families, but we had so much in common. We were a bit of a calm in the storm. We were quick to help, we worked hard, and we both fell in love with summer boyfriends. We did not think to push on the male hierarchy entrenched in decades of history and tradition. We did not know then who we would become.
I returned to Camp Lenox in 2016. My oldest daughter, Lila, was a camper. One of my campers had married one of the counselors from my 1990s version of Camp Lenox, and their daughter and Lila became fast friends. The director of the waterfront was the same old JJ, with the only real change in 25 years being loss of his blond wild mane of hair. So many of my people were still there. And I joined for a week as the camp doctor. In 2017, the camp celebrated its 100th birthday. Campers and counselors from far and wide returned, including Michelle Gomez and Jennifer Hanson. Michelle put her articulate strength to use, and is now the Mayor of her town in Florida. Jennifer is a tenured professor at Indiana University. And the 3 of us agreed, our experience at this camp was a huge influence on our professional success.
It turns out that spending a summer in close quarters in a male dominated environment might have been the best preparation for orthopaedics. There was no fear in competing with the men around me. I learned to separate myself from the behavior that was not interesting to me. I established boundaries. Most importantly, I learned to believe that I could do things differently but just as well as the men surrounding me, and I learned not to be intimidated. Probably the most important thing that these summers taught me was the meaning of a small tribe of women in a huge sea of boys and men steeped in tradition.
In 2019, the camp is almost 50% girls and women. The women counselors include top athletes, from basketball to softball to soccer. The stands for girls’ sports is filled by boys cheering, just like the girls cheer for the boys. The color war teams are led by a male and a female general each season. The girls and women are no longer a small minority among a male led majority. In 2019, I have spent 2 weeks watching my 2 daughters and 1 son inhabit a world that is teaching them gender equality in athletics and in life.
I have an ongoing email chain with 5 women of orthopaedics, true giants in my field. We exchange articles that motivate us and anger us, lift one another up, and remind one another to laugh. Last week I wrote to them about the shift I have experienced in my camp microcosm. As I received their supportive responses, I realized that these orthopaedists are my 2019 version of a tribe to return to after proving myself all day long in our world of orthopaedics.
I spent the past 48 hours with the society that I have come to understand is my professional home and happy place. The Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America (POSNA). These are surgeons that have dedicated their lives to fixing children. Children who break their bones, children who are born with crooked bones and spines, vulnerable little beings who cannot advocate for themselves. My pediatric orthopaedic family exists to support each other, to build each other up and pick each other up. Dr. Steve Frick, the outgoing president of POSNA, said something today from the podium that resonated fully with me. It went something like this, but I cannot do it justice… My clumsy paraphrasing of his words are as follows: This society is here to take care of its members so that the surgeons can take care of the children, their patients, in the best way possible.
2 years ago POSNA committed to embracing the work of wellness for pediatric orthopaedists. I had the honor of working with 2 of my heroes, Dr. Hank Chambers and Dr. Michael Goldberg, to spearhead this work. In the spirit of my own wellness, as I was overextended at that time, I asked for someone else to lead the WTF, as our Wellness Task Force was unfortunately named. That someone else has since joined the ranks of my heroes. Dr. Vish Talwalkar has a quick smile, humility, brilliance, and the kind of sense of humor required for this work. We started with a short seminar last year. We wrote a call to action, published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics. And yesterday Dr. Brian Scannell chaired a half day course on wellness that overwhelmed me with gratitude. My POSNA family showed up, learned, contributed, and sat in the hard work of the questions of our own vulnerability.
I had an “aha” moment as I planned the talks I would give during this session. In my quest for physician advocacy in the interest of wellness, and in my fierce battle calling attention to the moral injury that some call burnout in physicians, I have traveled to speak, written articles at night and on weekends, and I have had countless conversations with struggling physicians. I have always advised my mentees, my friends, my family, and my children to say yes to the things that bring joy and stir passion. So saying yes to all things related to this work has rolled over me like a Mack truck. My aha moment came from the podium. I began my talk with a disclosure that I have shifted to an edgy place. I’m not talking the wellness of yoga mats and organic vegan food. I spoke about the abyss that is growing between doctors and patients. About the loss of peer interaction. About the loss of respect for physicians, as evidenced by the #doctorsareassholes and #stayinyourlane viral movements. About the systemic challenges of the electronic medical record, sleep deprivation, loss of autonomy, and inability to have the support to function at the scope that we have trained so hard to achieve. And as I moved through my talk, I shifted from edgy to angry. Angry about what has happened to my beloved profession.
My kids go through their days at school and sports and friends and dance keeping it together, mostly as model citizens. Frequently they get home to me and lose it, with an ensuing hot mess of tears or rage. The sense of family, of warmth, of support, brings up the feelings they have bottled up all day long. This is what I felt as I came home to my POSNA family yesterday. I felt the support around me that enabled me to lose my veneer and show the crack in my armor.
I have left the beginner and intermediate slopes of this physician advocacy work I have assigned to myself. I feel like I am at the top of a steep and icy mogul field. There is no alternate route for me. I have committed, and I am pointing my skis down this mountain. I’m not sure if I will wipe out and fail or whether I will book down the mountain with good form and confidence. So stay tuned.
There are so many shifting tides in the practice of medicine in 2019. I have just learned of another milestone. For the first time, employed physicians outnumber physicians who are self-employed. This data is reported in a Policy Research Perspective from the American Medical Association by Carol K. Kane, PhD. She reports that younger doctors (under the age of 40) are more likely to be employed physicians. Women are also more likely to be employed physicians. I made the shift from an academic elite private practice to join a large multispecialty medical group at the age of 40, just as I was about to leave this demographic of “young woman.” And I continue to have so much to say about this shift.
I am an Orthopedic Surgeon. I have been a doctor for 2 decades now. I became a “surgeon” the year I turned 25, when I graduated from medical school and began internship. The year was 1997, and when I left New York City for Houston I wasn’t even sure what time zone I was entering. The humid southern climate was as foreign as the southern accents and the world renowned medical center called Baylor. My late father, who was also an orthopedic surgeon, moved me into my apartment and crushed the oversized bugs with his size 14 feet (mostly by accident).
I was confident in all of the wrong things, and was completely unprepared for the independence expected of an unsupervised intern in surgery. I survived year one, persevered year 2, learned in year 3, struggled in year 4, and finally hit my stride and thrived in years 5 and 6. I moved on to Los Angeles to one of the top pediatric orthopedic fellowships in the world. I entered the mecca of my specialty and surprised myself with my success. I was lifted by my mentors. I was brought into a fold that I never knew existed. I was asked to serve on the Board of Directors of the Pediatric Orthopedic Society. I believed that this honor came because of my academic hospital home.
I shocked myself in 2011 when I left the glory of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and all of the accolades that went along with it. I assumed that I would no longer be embraced by the academic elite. But I had my 3 children to think of. I had sanity to consider. I had predictability to embrace. I was then elevated to the Board of Directors of the mother society of all orthopedic societies, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. I had underestimated myself, and I had underestimated Kaiser Permanente. My leadership experience from the orthopedic world grew. I was asked to mentor in an elite orthopedic program entitled “Leadership Fellows Program”. Applications are accepted for mentees in this program through age 45. I was 44 when I was invited to mentor. I was elevated to oversee the Communications Council of the Pediatric Orthopedic Society. I was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Ruth Jackson Society of women in orthopedics. My invitations to speak and lecture throughout the country did not slow down.
In the 8 years since joining Kaiser Permanente, I have worked hard clinically. I have become respected by my department and was promoted to the position of assistant chief the year after I became partner. I am the Regional Clinical Lead for Pediatric Orthopedics. I am part of the Clinician Patient Communication team, in which I get to do deep work with my partners about how to best connect with our patients with integrity and remain true to ourselves. I take great pride in this program that bolsters our physicians. I am part of the regional team that leads perioperative services, and my niche is in culture. Regional Perioperative Leader for People, Practices, and Systems. My long-term work on this team will focus on diversity and wellness among our surgeons and anesthesiologists. I do all of this while maintaining a full orthopaedic practice. And when I close the door to share a visit with a patient and their family, the room is absolutely no different than the one I inhabited in the mecca a few blocks away.
My 12-year-old daughter remembers the days when I rarely returned home in time for dinner, the days when I left for work before she woke up. But happily, my 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son do not remember these days. I am an active mother with full support and partnership from my husband of 15 years. I love being a busy surgeon physician, and I believe that whatever I have accomplished as a surgeon and a mother is enhanced by my shift. It is not for everyone. My ego is often checked at the door. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My sister, Leah, is 6 and a half years younger than me. She is my best friend. She is brilliant. And hilarious. And engaging. She is an author and a teacher. She is a guru of mindfulness. And for the past many years she has been losing a battle with her weight. This morning she announced that enough was enough. She did it publicly… https://medium.com/@leahweissauthor/getting-started-for-the-last-time-the-weight-loss-journey-begins-f231f6cb2cfb?fbclid=IwAR3pRrODmEHGnqBcLFI7ncsR9UtUBJNrAdtX_HdtJ9qARNS4ZsDHYP6q5no.
As a pediatric orthopedist, obesity is my enemy in many ways. When children carry extra weight they are prone to leg deformity, slips in their hip growth plates, and worse outcomes with broken bones. https://www.anationinmotion.org/ortho-pinion/a-stance-against-obesity-in-children/
Adults who are overweight have a myriad of extra challenges with their bones and joints. It can be tempting to pursue medical treatment for these aches and pains in the form of pain medication, steroid injections, and even surgery. Let’s face it. Weight loss is so much harder than an external fix. I need to choose every word carefully when I approach this dilemma with my patients. It can just sound plain mean when they come to seek relief of knee pain from an orthopedist and learn that weight loss is often more effective than joint replacement. When a vulnerable person wearing a hospital gown sits on a paper sheeted exam table, I can see so much in their sad or angry or discouraged eyes
Last week a young woman came to see me 9 months after I reconstructed her ACL for clearance to get back to full sports and activities She lost 80 pounds. Her mother said that she lost a small child. I saw her pride on every inch of her face. She listed so many social and physical benefits to her new body habitus. I added one more, her knee is less likely to become arthritic.
Leah and I grew up with a father who was an orthopedist. He made us accountable for our aches and pains. We did not get notes of excuse to skip the mile run in PE. When I broke my arm at the age of 8, he actually took a week to believe me enough to take me in for an X-Ray. So we are 2 sisters that are anything but passive. When Leah complains about plantar fasciitis or pain in her feet, knee pain or breathlessness, she is quick to preface our conversation with the words, “I know it is because I need to lose weight.” My sister is aware and determined. She has played around with strategies to lose weight for a few years, but what I see now in her eyes and her written words is full on determination. I will be there with her every step and pound of this journey.
Retreat.This is a word for my sister, someone far more mature in self compassion and peacemaking than me.This word became part of my story in the last 5 days.A retreat with strangers.And my 12 year old daughter.
Wellness.Work life integration.Culture.Words I have been trumpeting to my peers, to physicians and surgeons, especially women and moms.I have spent 5 days discovering all that I do not know about these words.
Letting go.Following, not leading.Not part of my vocabulary 5 days ago.
Dancing with the lights on during the day without alcohol.Never, before 5 days ago.
What is home and why did I come here, to Bozeman, Montana, to be amongst strangers to spin and practice yoga and hike in Yellowstone?Home is my family.But my family has not been getting my best self.Or even my medium self.They have been getting the leftovers.This is upside down and backwards.So I came here to reset myself, take a risk.And then the cherry on top happened.My 12 year old daughter, Lila, agreed to come with me.
We met, we practiced yoga, we did burpees, we did jumping jacks…then Nicole asked us to share what and where our home is,..The strong woman to my right answered that her home is sweat.This is real for me, too.I am an anaerobic junkie.I don’t think I deserve to eat until I sweat.My temper is short until I sweat.I look different tin the mirror after I sweat.I am a better doctor after I sweat.I need to sweat to be a good mom, a nice wife, and kind to myself.So a retreat without sweat would be torture.A retreat ABOUT sweat…one word.YES.
I do things for myself.I take time for yoga 2 times per week.I work out every day.I get a manicure once in a while.I read fun books.I indulge in bad TV.But rarely do my kids get my best self, my relaxed self.Bringing Lila with me could have gone 2 ways.
detraction from my self care, ruining the vibe for the other women, and a bored Lila. OR
everything awesome for all of us.
We got, at least I think we got, #2 all around.
This kid is my heart and my light, the person who made me a mom the first time.She is smart and confident and gorgeous.She is a dancer.And she is warmth.I saw this experience through 2 lenses, alternating between my own eyes and hers.I watched her explore conversations with her new heroes and role models.
Nicole Meline.Never have I met someone who brings such absolute intelligence to fitness.Emotional intelligence.Creative intelligence.And just plain smarts.I sensed it when I took her classes when she was a Peloton instructor.I feared that meeting her in real life would expose that I had projected this onto her.But I DID NOT.She is the real deal.multidimensional.Perfect and imperfect.Strong and independent, so much so that she is ok to share humility and vulnerability and loss.Gorgeous inside and out is a cliche, but cliches exist for a reason.Nicole is a reason.
After a spin class that cannot be described by my amateur writing, with so much love for movement and work, sweat and joy, strength and rhythm and music, Lila asked to buy the t-shirt she had seen Nicole wear.She told me she would wear it to dance, so that she could remember to feel strong.I could have gone home right then and there.To see my daughter looking with starry eyes upon Nicole…at her strength and joy and beauty as a successful woman, single, resilient, bringing so much to the world with her own script, this was everything to me.
As if that were not enough, Lea Fulton graced us with her presence this week as well.Yogi, dancer, a spirit of support and giving.Lila watched Lea move her own moves.No choreography.And she absorbed it.As did I.I asked Lea to help me with a simple yoga pose, I told her I felt stuck and couldn’t get deep enough.Instead of adjusting me and pushing me, she just said, “that looks fine.”She took something I have struggled with for 10 years to improve and made it “fine.”This shifted me toward ease, not an easy feat.
The friendships…these are women who will stay with me.As a kid at summer camp I made friends in days that lasted a lifetime.But not as an adult.As a grownup friendships take years.Except in Bozeman.Here 5 days is enough.
So retreat has become a word for me too.I am full.I am easeful.And my daughter is here to get my best self today, and hopefully tomorrow.Until next time, nomads.