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Mary Ann E. Keenan, MD

AAOS Now

Published 5/1/2007
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Jennie McKee

Diversity champions open doors for women, minorities in orthopaedics

As trailblazers, mentors, and role models, Mary Ann E. Keenan, MD, and Michael J. Patzakis, MD, are helping to make orthopaedics a more inclusive field.

When Mary Ann E. Keenan, MD, entered the field of orthopaedic surgery in the late 1970s, she had very few female role models in the profession. Today, she is a role model and mentor for a growing number of women and minorities entering orthopaedics.

After earning her medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania, Dr. Keenan faced a major challenge. “The biggest issue was getting accepted to an orthopaedic residency program, because many programs weren’t accustomed to admitting women,” says Dr. Keenan.

She completed her surgical internship and residency at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, and went on to a fellowship in orthopaedic rehabilitation at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Hospital in Downey, Calif., where she focused on arthritis and joint replacement surgery, as well as neuromuscular surgery.

From outsider to insider
“Even though people treated me well as a female orthopaedic surgeon, I felt that I was an outsider,” says Dr. Keenan. “There was a need for female orthopaedists to mentor each other.”

To meet that need, Dr. Keenan helped create the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society (RJOS) in 1983. Six years later, she also was one of the founding members of the Orthopaedic Rehabilitation Association.

RJOS, an organization created as a support and networking group for women in orthopaedics, now has a membership of more than 400 men and women—practicing orthopaedic surgeons, residents, fellows, and students. Providing a woman’s viewpoint on the rewards and pitfalls of orthopaedics, RJOS offers a mentor program for medical students and residents, as well as regular meetings where members can network, share information on career development and management of career and family, and keep current on the latest healthcare issues.

Effecting change through leadership
Dr. Keenan continued to promote diversity in orthopaedics through her many leadership roles at organizations such as the University of California, Temple University, and University of Pennsylvania (U Penn) schools of medicine. She is currently the vice-chair for graduate medical education and chief of the neuro-orthopaedic service at U Penn and was the first female chair of a department of surgery in the country, according to Gerald R. Williams Jr., MD, a former professor of orthopaedic surgery at U Penn.

“Dr. Keenan is a most valued member of the faculty,” says Dr. Williams. “She has extended herself in numerous areas in both the department of orthopaedic surgery and the school of medicine at Penn. She has become an outstanding role model, not only for the female residents, but for all residents and junior faculty as well.”

“Since coming to Penn, Dr. Keenan has actively involved female candidates in membership to the RJOS and through research endeavors,” says R. Bruce Heppenstall, MD, vice chair of U Penn’s orthopaedic surgery department.

Dr. Keenan has used the opportunity of mentoring others in the practice of orthopaedics to also teach them about appreciating diversity among orthopaedic surgeons and in patient populations.

“During the 25 years I’ve been in practice, I’ve always been in an academic environment. Throughout that time, I’ve mentored many women and minorities,” says Dr. Keenan. “I’ve tried to make a real effort to teach diversity and make it a part of the core curriculum for the residents. I’ve also tried to expand the residents’ views of what diversity really means.”

Dr. Keenan also continues as a pioneer, developing her skills and knowledge in the burgeoning field of neuro-orthopaedics and providing care to underserved populations in the U.S. and abroad. She recently received the first Ladies’ Home Journal Health Breakthrough Award for her extensive treatment of patients with orthopaedic and neurologic disabilities.

Mary Ann E. Keenan, MD
Michael J. Patzakis, MD (Photo
courtesy of Martin Elbogen Photography)

The diversity of thought
“Women and minorities bring different viewpoints to the field of orthopaedic surgery, because they have different understandings of what people’s issues are than men may have. I think, however, that diversity is more than just gender and race,” says Dr. Keenan. “It’s more about the diversity of thought. I think we all have a tendency to be comfortable with what we know, and that means someone or something like ourselves. We need to challenge ourselves to become more knowledgeable and comfortable with people who think differently than we do.”

He’s “color-blind”
The orthopaedic surgery residency program at the University of Southern California (USC), headed by Michael J. Patzakis, MD, is one of the most diverse residency programs in the country. Women comprise as much as 40 percent of graduating classes, and minorities account for as much as approximately 40 percent of residents.

Such diversity is due in part to the emphasis that Dr. Patzakis puts on judging others based on their merits, not on their skin color, culture, or gender. He also uses his roles as teacher, mentor, and leader to encourage others to embrace and learn from each others’ differences.

“I grew up in a small town in Ohio. My parents, who were born in Greece, were ‘color-blind’ in the sense that they taught me to respect all people and to judge people by their character,” says Dr. Patzakis. “The street that I grew up on was racially and ethnically diverse, and the schools that I attended were racially mixed. Whenever I went to my high school reunions, I saw many of my African American friends who became professionals through their educations. It’s clear to me that capable and motivated people can excel if they’re given an opportunity.”

As the youngest of seven children, Dr. Patzakis worked hard during his childhood to contribute to the family and to pay for his education. “I sold newspapers, did odd jobs, worked in stores, and worked six summers in an aluminum factory to help pay for my college and part of my medical school education,” he recalls. “Fairness, promoting the rights of all people, judging people by their character, and helping people fulfill their aspirations has been a way of life for me. I’ve been there, so I can relate to people who are in need of the opportunity to achieve their goals in life.”

Leadership and education
Dr. Patzakis is professor and chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the USC’s Keck School of Medicine, the largest orthopaedic department in the United States. He is chief of Orthopaedic Surgery Service at the USC University Hospital, and holds the Vincent and Julia Meyer Chair. His efforts to encourage women in orthopaedics have been recognized by RJOS. He has also served as a faculty member for Instructional Course Lectures at the AAOS Annual Meeting and as an examiner for the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery.

“I encourage our students—especially the women and minorities—to consider orthopaedics as a specialty,” says Dr. Patzakis. “Having diversity in regards to ethnicity, gender, racial, and religious faiths teaches our residents to be sensitive to patients of various backgrounds. When orthopaedics encompasses all walks of life, it enables us to exhibit the phenomenal progress that we’ve made in improving the quality of life of our patients.”

Because the patient population he serves is a mixture of private and indigent patients, Dr. Patzakis says that when residents make rounds, they commonly encounter patients of different races and cultures.

“We take care of patients from all different walks of life, and I think that’s important. Our residency program is diverse, and our patient population is diverse as well,” says Dr. Patzakis.

Kathleen Savage, MD, a former medical student and resident at USC, says that Dr. Patzakis is much more than just an excellent orthopaedic surgeon.

“Not only does Dr. Patzakis provide superb musculoskeletal care for the underrepresented Los Angeles County population, he encourages all of us to provide care that is sensitive to the cultural diversity that we encounter every day at LAC General Hospital,” she says.

Dr. Patzakis teaches students and incoming residents to treat every patient with the same care they would provide to their mother, father, sister, or brother.

“I’ve always made a point with students as well as with incoming residents to emphasize that every patient should be treated as if he or she is a family member,” says Dr. Patzakis. “We take care of a lot of poor and homeless people; the bottom line is that you need to treat them with respect. It’s been very rewarding to see the patients get the best possible care we can give.”