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.