A Different Kind of Surgeon
By Andrea Halim, MD
When I was a fourth year orthopedic resident, a new hand attending started, fresh out of fellowship. Dr. Felicity Fishman had completed a hand fellowship with an additional 9 months of pediatric hand surgery training. She came in with a bang. She demanded that residents be prepared for cases, and became quickly known as someone who didn’t put up with laziness or poor attention to detail. At the same time, she was the only attending who showed up to our in-training exam to wish us luck. She brought donuts. She always demanded that correct instruments be available. She made handwritten lists of equipment and supplies for her cases and double checked her case cart every time. She also asked the senior residents to address her by her first name, and brought me to get lobster rolls when she doled out fellowship advice. She taught me that to be demanding and particular is not a sign of arrogance, but a mark of attention to detail, and she taught me that you can have high expectations and still be kind.
When I flew to Chicago for my step 2 board exam, I sat in an auditorium full of men. Not a single examiner that day was a woman. When we interview prospective residents, our own lecture hall is packed with men in dark suits, speckled with a vanishingly small number of women. Despite advances in gender equity, women continue to stand out in orthopaedics. Dr. Fishman is one of those women who reminds you about the things that we can do better than they can. She is just as demanding, focused, hardworking, and skilled as her male colleagues. But she is different than many of the other orthopedic surgeons I work with. Dr. Fishman remembers all of her patients by name. She takes mentorship seriously.
When I started back at Yale as a new attending, Dr. Fishman would poke her head into the OR to see if I needed any advice or help. Just knowing that she had my back was incredibly valuable to me as a new attending. She combines compassion with dedication and demonstrates to me what an academic surgeon should be. She is blind to insurance status. She never hesitates to do the right thing, no matter how personally inconvenient. She knitted a blanket for me while I was pregnant. She picks up her phone whenever I need advice about a difficult case.
I hesitate to say that women in surgery have strengths that men lack, because I don’t believe that substantial gender differences do or should exist. At the same time, women may have one strength that men lack – society hasn’t taught us to be infinitely stoic and unemotional. And the depth of compassion that we feel and experience for our patients and for our colleagues may just make us stronger.