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Mary I. O’Connor, MD, (right) with medical student and mentee Tamara Huff, BS
Courtesy of Mayo Clinic

AAOS Now

Published 5/1/2008
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Jennie McKee

The power of a positive role model

Mentors help women succeed in orthopaedics

Mentors are powerful forces in the lives of orthopaedic surgeons. Whether they are part of an organized mentoring program or not, mentors make a difference. They are key to attracting female physicians and those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds to orthopaedics, as the following stories illustrate.

Identifying new talent
“The reality is that you need mentors to succeed in all aspects of orthopaedics, including research, education, and leadership,” said Mary I. O’Connor, MD, chair of the AAOS Women’s Health Issues Advisory Board and chair of orthopaedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. “Throughout my career, I have been given opportunities for advancement because a mentor promoted me. How else do we identify new talent?”

According to Dr. O’Connor, working with her mentors—Franklin H. Sim, MD; Douglas J. Pritchard, MD; Bernard F. Morrey, MD; Richard F. Santore, MD; and James Rand, MD—was an important part of her development as an orthopaedist.

“Dr. Pritchard introduced me to orthopaedic oncology,” recalled Dr. O’Connor. “I rotated with Dr. Sim three times and came to appreciate his excellence as both an oncologic and reconstructive surgeon. My practice basically mirrors his: orthopaedic oncology and lower extremity adult reconstruction.

“I think of Dr. Sim and the technical details I learned from him every time I do a pelvic resection,” she said. “He often uses a quote: ‘If I see farther, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.’ Good mentors know that they are standing on the shoulders of giants and want their students to know that, too.”

For his part, Dr. Sim has mentored dozens of both male and female residents.

“Without a doubt,” said Dr. Sim, “it is essential to bring women into orthopaedics and foster their talents in all areas. By promoting not only females, but physicians of every ethnicity, we benefit from the different perspectives, skills, and insights that come with a diverse orthopaedic workforce.”

According to Dr. Pritchard, mentoring Dr. O’Connor was easy.

“All one had to do was to point Dr. O’Connor in the right direction and get out of her way. She is a truly exceptional person,” said Dr. Pritchard. “She is easily one of the best—if not the very best—fellows with whom I’ve ever had the opportunity to work.”

Love at first sight
Elizabeth A. Ouellette, MD,
professor of orthopaedics and chief of hand surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, also credits mentors with introducing her to orthopaedics and helping her succeed.

Between Dr. Ouellette’s first and second years of medical school, she spent a month observing her advisor, Kaye E. Wilkins, MD, on general surgery. When a third-year medical student suggested that she observe his orthopaedic rotation in the emergency department, she said, “it was like love at first sight. I saw orthopaedics as so mechanical and precise. It’s engineering, but in the human body. I loved it.”

During her orthopaedic residency at the University of Washington, Dr. Ouellette found another influential mentor in Sigvard “Ted” Hanson, Jr., MD.

“Dr. Hansen had both vision and understanding,” remembered Dr. Ouellette. “I felt comfortable speaking with him and getting direction.

“In residency,” she continued, “certain attending physicians may help you, but your fellow residents set the tone and the quality of what’s expected. Residents who stick out in my mind were Joseph D. Zuckerman, MD; Keith A. Mayo, MD; Marc F. Swiontkowski, MD; and Thomas J. Fischer, MD. We all pushed each other.”

Today, Gerard A. Kaiser, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon who serves as executive vice president, chief medical officer, and senior associate dean for clinical affairs at Jackson Health System in Miami is an important mentor for Dr. Ouellette.

“Dr. Kaiser has been my mentor for the past 5 years,” she said. “Learning from his perspective on medicine and his approach to accomplishing goals at a large institution have been absolutely wonderful.”

Turning a dream into reality
Claudia L. Thomas, MD,
the first African-American woman to become an orthopaedic surgeon and this year’s winner of the AAOS Diversity Award, served as a role model for Bonnie Simpson Mason, MD.

“Dr. Thomas was the first female orthopaedist that I met as a medical student,” said Dr. Simpson Mason. “She showed me that my dream of becoming an orthopaedic surgeon could become a reality. She conveyed the realities of gender inequity in orthopaedics and demonstrated strategies for successfully maneuvering into and through the field.”

Richard E. Grant, MD, and Lysa M. Charles, MD, also played significant roles in Dr. Simpson Mason’s professional development.

“During his tenure as the chief of orthopaedics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Dr. Grant was directly responsible for graduating more African-American females from an orthopaedic residency program than graduated from any other program in the country,” noted Dr. Simpson Mason.

When asked about specific lessons he imparts to his protégées, Dr. Grant quickly pointed to the importance of achieving academic excellence and developing an understanding of orthopaedic culture.

“Each surgical subspecialty has its own culture. If you don’t fit in with that surgical group and surgical mindset, and you’re not a team player, you soon get isolated and lose your way,” he said. “The next thing you know, someone’s tapping on your shoulder and saying that you should do something else.”

Dr. Simpson Mason sought out Dr. Charles, a contemporary in age, during her third year as an orthopaedic resident.

“When we met, Dr. Charles had recently completed her residency at the University of Michigan. Knowing that she had faced similar challenges to my own,” said Dr. Simpson Mason, “left me with a sense of camaraderie and support that I had not experienced before. She gave me sound advice about achieving academic success.”

Some of Dr. Simpson Mason’s other mentors include Terry L. Thompson, MD, and Robert H. Wilson, MD, who served as attending physicians during Dr. Simpson Mason’s residency training. She also points to Charles H. Epps Jr., MD and AAOS President Tony Rankin, MD, as consummate role models. In addition, one of her earliest and most important mentors was her mother, whose work as a construction engineer showed Dr. Simpson Mason that success in a male-dominated field was possible.

From mentee to mentor
Today, Drs. O’Connor, Ouellette, and Simpson Mason are all giving back to the orthopaedic community by mentoring young orthopaedists.

“During my tenure as president of the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society (RJOS), I focused on our mentoring efforts to increase the number of women in orthopaedics,” said Dr. O’Connor. “Lisa Cannada, MD, and I, with the assistance of many others, wrote the RJOS Guide for Women in Orthopaedic Surgery, which was recently published. We are excited about the book and think it will be a great resource to male and female residents alike.”

Dr. Ouellette, the current RJOS president, is also mentoring several female and male physicians.

“The most successful mentoring relationships happen naturally; they grow out of a common interest in a particular activity,” said Dr. Ouellette. “We may differ in other ways, but our common interest and our common home is orthopaedics.”

Since 2003, Dr. Simpson Mason has served as chair of the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society’s mentoring committee. She is also executive director of Nth Dimensions Educational Solutions, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing educational resources and opportunities to those interested in pursuing careers in orthopaedic surgery. She has mentored more than 20 female medical students, residents, and fellows.

“Even in 2008, some female medical students and residents still have never seen a female orthopaedist,” said Dr. Simpson Mason. “These women are discouraged from pursuing the field due to their stature and assumed lack of physical capability. But mastering orthopaedic surgery takes more brains than brawn; some of the most capable orthopaedic surgeons in the country are women who stand less than 5'4" tall and weigh less than 125 pounds.”

If you’re interested in participating in the AAOS Mentoring Program, e-mail mentor@aaos.org

Jennie McKee is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at mckee@aaos.org

NIH study underscores the importance of mentoring
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study published in the November 2007 issue of EMBO Reports stresses the importance of mentors in attracting and keeping women in research. At the NIH, only 29 percent of tenure-track principal investigators (PIs) and 19 percent of tenured PIs—the NIH equivalent of assistant and full professors, respectively—are women. These numbers have remained essentially level over the past decade and mirror the disparities found at most academic research institutions.

“Our findings suggest that the loss of talented women from the research track can be reduced by mentoring and a change in the scientific culture to accommodate the needs of both women and men who wish to combine family and scientific careers,” said Orna Cohen-Fix, PhD, a corresponding author of the report and senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases.