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Muriel Steele Society »  Spotlights »  Interview with Dr. Rita Mukhtar

Interview with Dr. Rita Mukhtar

Interview with Dr. Rita Mukhtar performed by medical student Gurbani Kaur (UCSF MD ’23). Dr. Mukhtar is a breast and acute care surgeon at UCSF and Associate Program Director for the general surgery residency.

Gurbani: Please tell us about yourself and what led you to pursue a career in surgery.
Dr. Mukhtar: When I started medical school at UCSF, I was open to anything except for surgery. I think that I had some misconceptions about what surgery was or what surgeons were like. But when I did my third-year rotation as a medical student, I just fell in love with it. I was excited to get to the hospital every day and really wanted to know what was going to happen to all of the patients that I was following. I felt really energized by the pace of surgery and the ways that surgeons could help patients.
I decided to apply in general surgery and I did residency at UCSF as well. I did my two research years in residency studying breast cancer outcomes and then did a fellowship in breast surgery. My practice now is split between general surgery on the Acute Care Surgery service at Parnassus and Breast Surgery at Mission Bay.
Gurbani: What is it about the OR that draws you in and makes you feel so at home there?
Dr. Mukhtar: I like the ability to fix problems, and we get to do that in the operating room. It’s a little bit like arts and crafts, which I love. I like using my hands, and I think that the OR is a place where you focus so much on a singular goal that time passes by without me realizing it. There are no distractions from the outside world, so there’s almost meditative quality to it.
Gurbani: I imagine that strong mentorship had a role in guiding you to where you are today and embodying the “U Can Stay Forever” motto. Can you tell us about the role mentorship had in your surgical career?
Dr. Mukhtar: One of my main mentors has been Dr. Laura Esserman, who is the director of our Breast Care Center and is a very well-known breast cancer surgeon and researcher. I heard her give a talk when I was a second-year surgical resident and I was just really inspired by what she was speaking about and her passion for treating breast cancer patients and innovating in the field. So, I approached her after her talk and introduced myself. She was just incredibly open and warm. We started talking after that and planning for me to do my research years with her. There have been many decisions during my training and along the way in my surgical career where I’ve been able to go to Laura and get her input and sometimes do things the way she advises me, and other times try it out my way first. You don’t always listen to mentors right away but the good ones are patient and supportive! She has really been someone who has been instrumental in me figuring out my path in surgery.
Gurbani: What is the best piece of advice that you have received from her or anyone else?
Dr. Mukhtar: I would say:finding something you’re very passionate about and pursuing that is important, because work can be exhausting, but that adage:“If you find a job you love, then you’ll never work a day in your life” rings true.
Gurbani: If not surgery, then what?
Dr. Mukhtar: That’s easy! I would be a flute teacher. I play the flute and was very serious about it for several years. I started playing when I was 9 years old. I was in high school band and then I was in orchestra in college and originally started college as a music major and taught lessons. I ended up switching to a music minor after I decided that I wanted to go to medical school and started doing all the pre-med courses. I definitely don’t get to play as much anymore as I used to, but whenever the rare opportunity comes up, I enjoy it. So, I think I would enjoy being a flute teacher if not a surgeon.
Gurbani: What’s one thing that you know now that you wish you had known during training?
Dr. Mukhtar: I had heard it before but didn’t appreciate it enough:the days are long, but the years are short. That saying really resonates with me. It’s surprising how residency seems like it’s so long, but it really flies by. I guess there’s two things:
(1) From a training perspective, it’s important to extract as much from the training time as you can. Really approach each day as today I’m going to learn something that’s going to help me take care of patients for the rest of my career. Thinking of training that way can help people maintain the stamina that’s needed to get through it and keep your eye on the big picture.
(2) On the flip side, the same is true for your life outside of the hospital. The years really go by quickly. So, it’s really important to not ignore the rest of your life and do things you enjoy and make sure you are taking care of yourself, exercising, and eating well as much as you can.
Gurbani: Speaking of life outside of the hospital. I saw you have a dog from one of the photos you shared with us. Can you please tell us about him and what you do to stay grounded/maintain wellness?
Dr. Mukhtar: I am totally obsessed with my dog. He’s a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Hamlet. I spend a lot of time with him like taking him on hikes, to the beach, and of course maintaining his Instagram Account:@Hammiethecavi. He’s 6 and I got him shortly after I finished my training. He used to attend conference pre-Covid. I hope to reinstate bringing him to conference once that is possible again. I know I’m biased but people seemed to really like his presence! He’s just adorable.
I love hiking and there are so many opportunities for it in the Bay Area. I recently started jogging again, but I’m not a fast jogger. A couple of the residents and I started what we call the “slow running club.” On Thursday afternoons we jog together usually at Kezar stadium and sometimes in Golden Gate Park. I also love exploring different cuisines at new restaurants and am looking forward to being able to do that more again once things get back to normal.
Gurbani Kaur: How has your identity as a woman impacted your surgical journey?
Dr. Mukhtar: I do both general surgery and breast surgery, and I think that gender has different implications in each. When I was a medical student deciding to go into general surgery, I think I had my own preconceived notions of the field as a male-dominated field. It was hard to imagine myself being a surgeon, but seeing examples of female surgeons at UCSF was really helpful for me to be able to imagine myself doing it.
I think that all surgeons who don’t look like a stereotypical surgeon have the experience of patients being surprised that they are the surgeon. I’ve definitely had experiences where patients will talk to me for an hour about what we’re going to do in the operating room and then at the end of the hour ask me who will be doing the operation. I think it’s a fairly standard experience.
On the flip side, I have many patients who are so happy and excited to have a female surgeon. I think it’s nice that patients can have some choice in who makes them more comfortable and fits with them best. In breast surgery, because we take care of women with breast cancer and there’s so many women who are breast surgeons it’s not quite so surprising anymore.
I think that the impact of how patients and others perceive me as a surgeon because of my gender has decreased as I spend more time in practice. When you’re first starting out and first forming your identity as a surgeon, you need to develop confidence and believe in yourself. When other people are questioning “Oh, are you the surgeon?” it can impact you negatively. As you become more comfortable in your own skills and abilities, these external forces, for me at least, become less significant. It is very important that we are aware of and acknowledge these things. I don’t want trainees like medical students to let this stop them from becoming a surgeon.
Gurbani: What made you decide to embrace U Can Stay Forever?
Dr. Mukhtar: When it comes to women in surgery, we are so lucky at UCSF to have had so many examples of eminent female surgeons here. Additionally, what I really like about UCSF is that there’s a spirit of intellectual curiosity, a lot of open mindednesses, and willingness to try new things. The depth and breadth of experts in their respective fields is truly amazing.
Gurbani: Similarly, what do you like about SF?
Dr. Mukhtar: I grew up in the Bay Area and have a lot of friends and family here. Just as I love the open mindedness at UCSF, I think that’s a part of the ethos of the Bay Area. I really like our uniqueness and appreciation for the uniqueness in people.
Gurbani: What advice would you give to a young woman in medical school who may be interested in surgery?
Dr. Mukhtar: I would advise them to do whatever makes them feel energized and happy. If they find taking care of surgical patients and being in the operating room really interesting and that’s what they want to do, then it would be ideal to find a mentor and keep putting one foot in front of the other to move forward and not let other people’s preconceived notions limit them. Even if you can’t find a mentor at your institution it is possible to find mentors at other institutions at meetings for example.
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