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Muriel Steele Society Spotlight Series

Schroeder And Wustrack

Drs. Nicole Schroeder and Rosanna Wustrack

Interview performed by Natalie Kucirek and Kara Tanaka

Question 1: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you would have known during training?

NS: You can’t have it all. You go through training thinking at some point in your life everything is going to be perfect and that everything is going to fall together in place, but, there’s never the right time. You push things off down the road, saying, ‘there’ll be a better time later or at different point of my career,’ but there is not. So just move forward with your plans, whatever they are.

RW: I agree – you can’t have it all. There are only 24 hours a day and seven days in a week so you might not be able to achieve the same level of excellence in every single aspect of your life, but that’s ok. If I could go back to training, I think I wouldn’t be afraid to look like I didn’t know what I was doing, because 99.9% of the time I didn’t know what I was doing, and I still don’t sometimes, but when you put yourself out there, that’s when you grow the most. So, I wish I had not been afraid to show my ignorance more often.

NS: Good one Rosie.

Question 2: Who do you admire?

RW: Dr. Schroeder.

NS: Oh, come on! (laughing) I always admire the people that are a quadruple threat in academic medicine because it’s amazing to see those people run. So, in the field of orthopaedics, particularly  when you see women who have families and then can continue to do research and be excellent clinicians and be great educators, I find those people so impressive. And in our field, for me, that’s Anne Van Heest and Dawn LaPorte and Dr. Wustrack somehow manages to do it. So those are the people I really admire in medicine.

RW: One person that comes to mind is one of my mentors from fellowship, Carol Morris. She’s an orthopaedic oncologist at Johns Hopkins. One of things I really admire about her is that she wasn’t afraid to give tough feedback in a very non-emotional, these-are-the-facts way, but then also moved on from it really well. So, if you are on the receiving end of that, you didn’t feel like you were in the doghouse forever. That’s something I’m terrible at! I’m very good at giving positive feedback. I’m very bad at giving negative or constructive feedback. I really admire that she is able to do that and maintain relationships and it’s not the end of the world.

Question 3: What impact has mentorship had on your surgical career?

RW: Huge! Massive, massive, massive! Medical students always ask, ‘how did you choose orthopaedics?’ It’s just because people told me I should do it. Mentors said, “Oh, you’d be really good at orthopaedics. The field needs more women. You should really think about it.” So, here’s a well-respected orthopaedic surgeon telling me I should do orthopaedics and that I would be good at it. And then just having people looking out for you along the way, people that you could talk to, people that you can emulate. It’s just been really huge. And I still have a lot of great mentors that I lean on a lot now at this point in my career. Had I had no real surgical mentorship and I was just left to my own devices, I would have done family medicine or OB, gyn/onc, or something like that. It actually took mentorship to steer me down this path.

NS: I agree with everything that Dr. Wustrack said! I was exposed to orthopaedics after a sports injury in college. However, it was the interactions with my mentor in med school, watching him educating residents about hand surgery and how passionate he was about his career,  that what really got me interested in orthopaedics and the impact that education can have on medical students and people interested in the field. Every step along the way you have mentors that are giving you advice about your career and that is invaluable. (pause) I’ve got to cut my kids a piece of zucchini bread for breakfast. 

RW: I want one.

Question 4: What is the best piece of advice you have received?

RW: During residency, we had a visiting professor give grand rounds. This one stuck with me because it’s very true – he basically said: You’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to keep making mistakes, so don’t be afraid of the complications or the mistakes. That will happen and will continue to happen, and you’ll feel terrible about it, and when you stop feeling terrible about it, maybe that’s the time to retire. But the complications won’t go away. I think that’s really good advice because it’s really  true. If you walk into a bad outcome, it’s good to keep that in mind that a very well-respected visiting professor said that and deals with his or her own complications as well.

NS: When I was in fellowship, my attending had a list of top 10 commandments of hand surgery and one of them was, ‘if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster’. People always ask me, can you guarantee that I’m going to be pain free or that it’s going to go perfectly? You always want to say sure, but you can’t guarantee that.

I was told once that you should do something that scares you every day. Which I think goes back to what Dr. Wustrack was saying earlier. Put yourself in that position where you ask that question or do that thing that you don’t feel comfortable doing because you can only learn from it.

 

Question 5: If not surgery, then what?

NS: I’d open up an Etsy shop for all my crafting. Right now, it would be polymer clay earrings that I’ve been making. I also make my own t-shirts. And maybe a small organic farm. 

RW: I probably would have gone into teaching if I didn’t go down the medicine route.

Question 6: What are you most proud of personally and/or professionally?

NS: Personally, I’m most proud of my family. Watching my kids grow every day is one of the coolest things and seeing their brains explode. So that always brings me a smile whether it’s super early in the morning or late at night. And professionally, I‘m always really proud of our residents and watching them grow over the five or six years that they’re with us – seeing how much they learn over the years and watching them teach the next generation of students and residents coming through, I think is amazing. And it’s amazing to see how much they transition over their time here. 

RW: I agree with family. I think that’s super important. When they have little successes, it feels like your success. So that’s really great. My garden is a second, close second, to family. Nikki understands that. And professionally I’m proud that I’m able to keep a steady, overall calm mood in the OR. I try hard and I feel that when I’m successful in keeping things stable in the OR, it creates an environment where everyone can be successful. It’s something that I work on, so I’m proud when I can say, ‘oh that was a really stressful case, but I can tell that the room wasn’t stressed out.

Question 7: What inspires you to do what you do?

RW: I really like what I do, and I feel really lucky that I get to interact with patients the way I get to interact with them. I find that really, really rewarding. And then I really enjoy operating so I feel very lucky that I get to do cases I find really enjoyable. Sometimes there are highs and lows and you’re not necessarily inspired every day, but I find if just keep getting up and going to work, throughout the day I’ll usually find some great moment or really gratifying part of the job. It’s not like you wake up every single day like Cinderella with birds putting your clothes on and singing.

NS: Wait, what? That doesn’t happen for you?

RW: Overall, I just really like my interactions with patients.

NS: Well said Rosie. Yes, I think it’s the patients, our colleagues are certainly inspirational, the people we get to work with every day, the love of what we do. When it really boils down to it, I love what I do every day. In the end, the fact that we get to be surgeons and clinicians and take care of patients, and you can make a really big difference in somebody’s life, feels really good.

 

Question 8: What are your hobbies outside of the hospital? 

NS: I love crafting, so anything that can get me to use my hands to build stuff is really fun. I was that kid that loved to bedazzle and make puffy paint t-shirts and bead looms and all of that. Rosie and I do a lot of crafting together. We paint a lot. 

RW:  Reading. Art – I like to draw and paint. And now, gardening. That’s a new once since coronavirus.

 

Question 9: Within orthopaedics, what other specialty would you choose if you did not choose your specialty – so not hand surgery for Dr. Schroeder or oncology for Dr. Wustrack?

NS: Probably, shoulder/elbow? I actually really liked trauma. But probably open shoulder/elbow. Definitely not sports. 

RW: I don’t know, that’s really tough. Maybe, maybe peds? I really liked oncology pretty early.

 

Question 10: Any additional advice?

NS: Do ortho. We need more women. 

RW: That’s probably the most important piece of advice.


Drs. Mika Varma and Lucy Kornblith

Interview performed by Katy Abel and Sarah Tsou.

Question 1: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you would have known during training?

MV: One thing I wish I had known is that residency wasn’t the hardest part of the whole process. It’s a marathon: taking care of patients, doing research, teaching, mentoring, all the things that come into your career. We treat residency as being the worst part of it, and although I worked very hard, I don’t feel like it was the only part that was difficult. I wish I had more of an appreciation for the whole process of how your career happens.

LK: My answer is similar. Residency is for a purpose; it’s to train you to be a surgeon, but there’s more about practicing surgery than just being a surgeon that you don’t learn in residency. I don’t know if I wish I had known that or not. I do think that there is a role for not knowing it and just focusing on being a good doctor and learning how to be a surgeon. However, I think that the paradigm of training makes it hard to exit training into the real world because you are missing big chunks of what you need to know to do it well. 

Question 2: Who do you admire?

MV: I admire Lucy.

LK: You can’t say that because I was going to say you!

MV: No, I totally can. I don’t know how she does it. I’ve known Lucy since she applied to residency, and I could tell she was very directed. Lucy is attentive. She really cares about patients. She’s unrelenting. I have never seen her get tired from any of it, which is impressive. She is also extremely kind and thoughtful. She remembers to reach out or give a gift. I actually think that, considering how busy she is as a surgeon, the fact that she has the personal depth to do that as a human being is remarkable.

LK: Well, then, I am going to have to say that I admire Mika. The Muriel Steele Society exists because of Mika. I needed advice about something I really didn’t know how to handle, and Mika just seemed like the right person to ask about it. I contacted her out of the blue about it, and it was in that moment that I think we both recognized that we need each other, the global We, because there’s a lot of things that each of us don’t know how to deal with or don’t have the right tools to deal with.  We can all benefit from someone else who has been through or has dealt with things in academic medicine it in a different way. Dr. Sosa has been incredibly supportive of the endeavor. 

MV: I’m constantly talking about this with Lucy, #SheforShe. We spend all this time trying to make sure women are promoted, but if we are not helping each other, it’s all lost. And I see too many examples where there isn’t enough #SheforShe. And so, if anything, I hope the MSS is doing that. If we do a little bit of that, the goal will be achieved.

Question 3: What impact has mentorship had on your surgical career?

LK: I actually think mentorship has probably influenced every major decision career-wise I’ve made. The reason I am a trauma surgeon, I can isolate back to a single experience with a single mentor, and I think that many of the decisions we make are based on someone that has shown us the way. I think that mentorship comes in a lot of forms. Most people would say that they have a different mentor for various aspects of their lives. However, I can be certain that every big step through my short career has been influenced significantly by a mentor, whether it was that I wanted to be like them or I wanted to not be like them. I think that it helps form the way we move forward.

MV: I would echo the same thing. I think at different phases of your life and relating to different aspects of your career or personal life, you may be reaching out to different people. To be honest, the person who I turn to the most, who has given me such excellent advice and helped me through very difficult times has been my husband. He’s in academic medicine, he understands the field, he knows the people. That’s been huge for me and we have been together since residency. So of all the relationships, that’s the one I’ve benefited the most from.

Question 4: What is the best piece of advice you have received?

LK: Someone once told me that “Nobody puts your CV on your tombstone,” and I think that it’s an important concept in knowing who’s going to be there in the end. You can’t forget about your foundation, whatever that may be--your family, your friends…  

MV: I think that being true to yourself is really important. It’s not about what other people want you to be or do. ,You should do what you really care about and be at peace with that. I think that’s been one of the most important things I’ve tried to adhere to throughout the years. In the end, it’s your life and you’re going to reflect back and want to feel good about who you were with, what you accomplished, all of it. Do what’s right for you.

I say to my girls all the time. There’s no straight line between point A and point B, and point B may not even be where you want to go. When I was younger, I was very obsessed with point B. I wish I had spent a little more time in the present and not worried about what the next step was.

Question 5: If not surgery, then what?

MV: If I wasn’t doing medicine, I would probably want to do something in the arts--not because I have any aptitude. I’m always drawn to art, which I never really thought about doing because I was in this “point B rat race,” but I always think I would have done something artistic. 

LK: I would be a ballerina. Ballet is very much like surgery. It attracts a similar personality. People who are ballerinas are incredibly dedicated to their trade, and disciplined. They’re perfectionists. I think they view it as part of them and not just a career. I would say there are a lot of similarities between the intensity and discipline of the profession.

Question 6: What are you most proud of personally and/or professionally?

MV: That’s very easy for me. I’m incredibly proud of my daughters, but I’m also incredibly proud of the family life we’ve created. This quarantine has really not been hard because we all really like each other and like to spend time together, and I feel that we are all very open with each other. We laugh, we scream, we cry--but we do it all together. It’s such a nice basis from which to then face the world, so I’m incredibly proud of that. Professionally, I think the thing I am most defined by is my clinical work and surgical skills. It’s not easy to be a woman in this world of surgery. There aren’t that many women colorectal surgeons, and I had to fight very hard to attain my reputation of excellence in the Bay Area and Northern California. And I think I’ve done that.

LK: In my personal life, I’m proudest of my relationship with my husband because he’s really my best friend, and I think it’s the foundation for everything, particularly how we raise our son. Our lives make it so that we don’t spend a lot of time together, but I think we manage to do it pretty well.

Professionally, I think what I’m proudest of is that I have a focus on multiple things. My science is very important to me, and when I’m being a scientist, that’s my focus. My clinical care and being a trauma surgeon is very important to me, and when I’m being a trauma surgeon, I really focus on that. Teaching and educating other people to love trauma the way I love it is really important to me, and when I’m teaching, I’m focusing on that. I think I’m proudest that I dedicate myself to each of those things.

Question 7: What inspires you to do what you do?

LK: I don’t know what exactly inspires me--I think it’s multifactorial. But it’s deep-rooted, whatever it is. The sort of life that I live, and the role that medicine and surgery and academics plays in my life--it just feels part of me. 

MV: When I first did surgery as a medical student, it just tapped into this part of my brain that I didn’t even know I had. I went into medical school not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, but I just thought I wouldn’t be a surgeon. But I saw it and I participated in it, and it opened up something in me. I just love seeing a beautiful operation, and I love to see the patients doing well. I love the hugs that I get afterwards! I will say that the clinical part of surgery is definitely the thing that inspires me the most and also keeps me going. That psychic income of the patient’s gratitude and seeing a good outcome--that really doesn’t get old for me. I just love it. 

LK: And when the planes separate correctly…

MV: It’s just so beautiful! I feel like I never got to be artistic so I do it in surgery. I love a certain kind of visual of seeing the anatomy and creating a perfect operation. Sharing that with learners and helping patients is fun. 

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