When I became the first African American woman to train in neurological surgery in the University of California system in 1984 I remember an encounter with a post surgical patient who introduced me when I entered his hospital suite as “the nurse who performed my operation.” I am left with memories more cutting than those expressed by Dr. Hussein. Memories of the time I arrived late to the operating room while rotating as a UCSF general surgery resident at a community hospital and while scrubbing to enter the OR, having a member of the janitorial staff walk up and ask where the broom was located. Memories of the times I rounded as a neurosurgical resident on a consult to a specialty service and being asked was I the pediatrician. Memories of being a medical student interviewing for a general surgery residency slot and telling a senior attending physician I wanted to study neurosurgery and having him burst out in laughter.
In 1986 I became the first African American woman in the nation to serve as a flight physician for a hospital based aeromedical transport program as a postdoctoral clinical and research fellow aboard the Stanford Life Flight Helicopter. The fellowship was through the Department of Surgery at Stanford and required neurosurgical skills because a large percentage of patients Stanford Life Flight responded to were critically spine injured requiring airway and spinal immobilization prior to transport to the regional spinal care center at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. I remember an incident while transporting an unstable patient to the ICU when I encountered a physician in training who appeared absolutely astounded I had inserted Gardner Wells tongs into the skull of a patient with a life threatening cervical spine injury as a method of stabilization during helicopter transport. When I told him I trained in neurological surgery he looked at me in utter disbelief and denied what I had told him. He did not accept what I told him as being true.
Fast forward to 2003 when I sustained an occupational injury to my cervical and lumbar spine requiring emergency department evaluation at the University of California San Francisco…where I trained. A young resident came in to examine me and noted my neurological findings that matched the description I had given on my intake. He remarked about my use of medical terminology. I replied by telling him I had trained in neurological surgery and had been a resident myself in this ER. He looked at me in utter disbelief and denied what I had told him. He did no accept what I told him as being true.
I detailed my experiences as a woman of color in a specialty dominated by men in my book The 21st Century Upright Woman. It does not surprise me I am the only one to comment on Dr. Hussein’s profound insight into what it is like to be a woman of color in a life saving surgical speciality. I expected gratitude…not skepticism, disbelief and denial of the obvious truth!