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We Must be Systematic and Relentless

By Wendy Chen, MD

I am a female Taiwanese American plastic surgeon and hand surgeon. I was born in Northern California to immigrants, and as far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to help people.

A century ago, I would not have been allowed in this country. I would have lived in fear, as it was not uncommon for Chinatowns to burn to the ground. Fifty-four years ago, I would not have been allowed to be in a mixed-race relationship. Forty-six years ago, I would not have been allowed on a jury. Even now, as educated as I am, as much money as I make, in the state which I reside, I am denied freedom about my own body. I have been followed while jogging on a college campus after dark, and, eight years ago, if I identified as LGBTQ, I would have been denied marriage to my beloved. 

Throughout my career, from medical student to attending, I have worked in dozens of hospitals all across the nation. Within those walls, I have been told I “don’t look like an American,” to “go back to where I came from.” I have had my shoulders massaged while insetting a flap, I have been the target of jokes sexualizing my body, I have had a surgeon rest his chin on my shoulder and whisper into my ear while I entered orders in full view of the operating room staff. I have had a medical assistant ask me what I was like in bed while I frantically typed my clinic notes. I have been told there is nothing “they” can do, that “everyone knows, he has always been like that.” I have paid my own way to present award-winning research when funds were “found” for male counterparts. When I stood up for someone, I have been told, “You’re lucky– I’m a nice person, I won’t make this a problem for you.” 

I am 300% grateful for my training and for allies along the way. I also know my story is in no way special and is shared by many.

I know the world, the system, we co-exist in was not made for someone like me, because it was not architected by someone like me. But we each deserve to exist, especially in our workplaces, authentically, equally, safely, unconditionally.

I also know over half of current U.S. medical students are female, and Caucasians will no longer be the majority race by 2045, barely enough time to fully train two cycles of surgeons. There is plenty of research to show diverse providers are needed simply to prevent a profoundly negative public health effect, to engage patients, to get the best results, yet those providers face an ongoing, Sisyphean, cumulative career disadvantage.

Most importantly, I know our specialty is full of brilliantly clever and kind physicians, because I have seen them—on Zoom calls, in committee meetings, on social media, and in person. Hand surgeons are collaborative innovators undaunted by challenge, unafraid of confronting hard truths and frank failures. Like anything that evolves, like anything that is difficult, this nuanced path forward demands investment and persistence. Just as we apply the scientific method to our work, we must be systematic and relentless about our commitment to Diversity, Equity, Justice, and Inclusion. 

This is what DEI in the field of hand surgery would mean to me.

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