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Muriel Steele Society »  Spotlights »  Interview with Dr. Sanziana Roman

Interview with Dr. Sanziana Roman

Interview with Dr. Sanziana Roman performed by medical student Anya Greenberg (UCSF MD ‘23). Dr. Roman is an endocrine surgeon at UCSF.

Anya Greenberg, MS4: Thank you for joining me today. To start, I'd like to ask, what are you most proud of professionally or personally?
Dr. Sanziana Roman: I'm lucky enough to be proud of a lot! Now that I've been doing this [surgery] for a while, and I realize the hardships that we all go through, and the different things that life throws at us, I’m proud that I've overcome a lot of them and am in my current position. I am proud that I have felt like being able to trust myself in making decisions that ultimately have served me well, and that I’ve been able to overcome the sense of impostor syndrome. In my heart, I know that I want to do the right thing, so even if I made a mistake, I know I tried to use the best information available to me at the time. It has taken me a long time to get here, but once I've been able to accept this over the years, I feel that I have become a better, kinder, and more patient person, and I am proud of that.
Anya: Thank you for sharing. That is truly very important and admirable that you've been able to achieve it. My next question is, who or what has helped you get to where you are today?
Dr. Roman: Seeking out the good in other people -- my mentors, my sponsors, the people around me. Surrounding myself with people who are supportive. Backing away from people who are negative or undermining. Knowing who's going to be there for you versus who's more self-interested or who may undermine you is a challenge. I always believe that people are honestly good, so whenever I meet somebody, I'm always open to them. I also like to understand them, so I form bidirectional relationships. That has allowed me to gauge somebody and not have unrealistic expectations from a relationship. With realistic expectations, I almost never feel disappointed. That has helped me in dealing with people and difficult situations.
Anya: You mentioned mentors. Can you elaborate on mentorship and the role that mentorship has played in your path as both a mentee and a mentor?
Dr. Roman: We all have many mentors in many forms. If you think about it, when you were growing up, you may have really liked a teacher and looked up to them and thought they were really smart. Maybe, you wanted to take more classes with that teacher and be in their presence or be like them. I think that innate drive to look up to somebody who seems to know it all or have it all together is very helpful. So, that concept of mentee/mentor is just part of who we are as humans.
In terms of being a mentor, a lot of us may want to share the knowledge or experience gained over time with others. For me, I think that that is a very natural tendency. There are different mentee/mentor relationships. If the mentoring relationship has genuine trust and expectations are set, then it could be very mutually beneficial. No mentor is going to be perfect. There's no Yoda. People are talented at one thing or they have experience in one thing or two things but not in everything. So, I think it's helpful to gauge what somebody can teach you and not expect other things from them. Then you won't be disappointed if they can't give it to you and you can seek wisdom from someone else who may be able to fill that area. Having multiple mentors is actually quite good.
For me, professionally, I can say hands down that the reason I am who I am today professionally is because of one person: Dr. Barbara Kinder. She is retired now, but she is an endocrine surgeon. She was the first woman to graduate from Yale School of Medicine, the first woman to graduate from the Yale surgical residency, and the first woman president of the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons. She has so many firsts because she is really an amazing trailblazer and on the cutting edge of leadership and phenomenal women in surgery. She is my model for the perfect mentor. She embodies giving without asking for anything in return, and having absolutely no sense of competition. In fact, she always wanted her mentees to do better than she ever could. That makes her happy. I've written about her as a mentor, and, actually, I have a publication coming in the World Journal of Surgery about her as part of a series on inspirational women surgeons from around the world. I really speak widely and often about her because she's amazing.
Anya: It sounds like that was a very pivotal relationship for you!
Dr. Roman: It was. It was a truly pivotal relationship. I actually think that in our lives we do have pivotal relationships that we may or may not recognize at the time. But looking back, if I hadn't met her, I would have not gone in this professional direction.
Anya: How did you cross paths?
Dr. Roman: She was a faculty member and surgeon at Yale when I did my residency there. She was smart, kind, and caring, and really skilled in the OR, so I naturally admired her. When I finished residency and became a general surgeon, I felt somewhat lost. I was doing a bit of everything my first year out, and I wasn't getting great cases. I was feeling a bit down, when she called me up one day out of the blue and she said "I don't have a partner, I don't have anybody who will take over everything that I’ve built. Would you be willing to become my partner and build further what I've done here?" It was like the sky opened up and there were angels singing! I remember it vividly. I hung up the phone and started skipping like a child down this long hallway at the VA because I was so excited. People were looking at me strangely "What is going on?" and I was smiling because "I'm going to be an endocrine surgeon!" It was ridiculous, but, yep. I was an adult with unbridled joy. I did that.
Anya: That's so funny, and a true testament of your talent that you were handpicked by this amazing individual! How did you turn a relationship with somebody you were working with in the OR to such a pivotal, lasting, influential, mentee/mentor relationship that changed your life?
Dr. Roman: Honestly, I think I just said to her "I feel like I connect with you. Do you think it would be okay to come and talk to you about life and profession?" and she said "Yes." So, that's how it started.
Anya: Along your trajectory, what would you say is the best piece of advice that you got?
Dr. Roman: That's very tough. In all honesty, the best advice was the advice I gave myself, which was to not listen to negative people. I have gotten advice like “don't do this” or “this will hurt you” in relation to various things about which I felt very strongly. I decided to do what I truly wanted to do, and I think that was the right thing for me.
Anya: How did you get the strength to go against advice that you were given? What enabled the bravery?
Dr. Roman: This goes back to what I mentioned before about things of which I'm most proud: when I make a decision that feels true to myself, and that decision is made with a ethical conscience, then it is the right thing to do, even if it’s not the politically correct thing. If you trust yourself to stay balanced and honest, if you feel that your decisions are the right ones for you, then you actually start trusting yourself more and more; even if you make a mistake, you can be kind to yourself and forgive.
Anya: How did you decide what advice to take versus what to hold your ground on?
Dr. Roman: Well, I'm not saying that you need to be stubborn or just go against the grain and always do whatever you want. You definitely have to weigh the wisdom and the experience of others, no doubt. But, I’ll give you an example. I have gotten advice that I should not be in a same sex relationship because it will hurt me professionally. I've heard this from senior surgeons, my former chairs. They advised me that it was a bad idea and that it was professional suicide at the time. So I said, "You know what? If it's going to be professional suicide, then it is what it is, and if people don't like it and cannot see past this, then that's their problem."
Another example was being told that because I am partnered with somebody in the same profession, that we would never be able to obtain adequate positions together, so they warned that my career would be stalled. I did not believe it to be true. I realized that if there are two partnered physicians in the same specialty, if they can differentiate enough, and remain their own person with their own accomplishments and interests, then they can be successful as individuals and partners.
Anya: Thank you so much for sharing these two personal examples and even more so, thank you for paving the way for those who follow in your footsteps, because those are really, really important and giant decisions that folks are posed with day-to-day, and having you as a role model in that regard is invaluable.
Dr. Roman: Well, thank you. That's very kind of you to say. Thank you.
Anya: Who, in addition to Dr. Kinder, do you admire? It doesn't have to be somebody in surgery or medicine.
Dr. Roman: I admire individuals who have put themselves out on the line, against the grain for the greater good of humanity. There are many people like that. John Lewis, Audre Lorde come to mind. The word altruism is one of my favorite words because it denotes that sense. If we had more altruism in the world, the world would be better. I admire people who have altruism.
Anya: It is very fitting that you answer in this way based on your comments from the last question where you went against the grain and that has benefited so many people, so thank you for sharing that. Shifting gears, I'd love to hear more about your hobbies or passions outside of medicine.
Dr. Roman: Well, number one, two, and three are music, music, and music. Other than music and singing and opera, I have really loved incorporating myself into the drag subculture of San Francisco. It's amazing. I’ve met fabulous people who go against the grain, speak their truth, and are who they are unapologetically. That has really attracted me. The other thing I like to do is outdoor stuff. Northern California is beautiful, but everywhere I've lived, I've loved the outdoors and hiking in nature.
Anya: How do you, being a busy surgeon and leader in so many different domains, find the time to have these passions outside of medicine and surgery?
Dr. Roman: You have to make time for things that you care about. They will not just happen. You have to put in the effort to have them happen. I have this theory about timing. At different times in your life, you may have to focus on what's most important in that moment, that will drive you forward in the area that you're most focused on. When I was in college, I did a lot of music. That was my focus. Then I decided to go to medical school. I was lucky to have a family dynamic that allowed me to not focus on it, so I could focus my energies on school and singing. Then, as I grew older, family became more prominent and career still needed a lot of work, so my singing went dormant. I didn't do a lot of singing for about a decade. Then, when the family and the profession became stable and not so time-consuming, I went back to music because I loved it and I missed it and I wanted it to come back into my life. I believe we shouldn’t fault ourselves for not doing everything perfectly at all times. That goes back to being kind to yourself, knowing that you will make the right decisions, knowing what you should let go at the time, and not punishing yourself for not being good enough.
Anya: That's so important to hear since there is an infinite number of things at any given time that can have our attention, so just hearing you say that provides a lot of reassurance for me, as I'm sure it will for others. Along those lines, what is something you wish you had known during training that you now know?
Dr. Roman: I wish that I had known that training is actually a wonderful time, and that it is not one giant, long, interminable night of call! Looking back, I always joke: “I went into the hospital my first day of internship and I went home the day I graduated.” I wish I knew there's so much more to that profession, to the training, and there are so many joys that make it worth it. If you have a hard day, just move on. It'll get better. I recently saw this silly meme:
Training is not easy, but it is a wonderful time that you can enjoy if you don't get bogged down by it.
Anya: Is there anything I haven't touched on that you want to pass along to those following in your footsteps?
Dr. Roman: Well, I guess for trainees, I found that the best way to get out of being in a funk when you're down is to think of all the good things that are going on in your life. If it seems like there's nothing good going on in your life -- the fact that you are in a house with a roof and you have new clothes, a bank account, a car, a job, those are actually things that are good. So, no matter how far back you have to go to the limit of human needs, there's somebody who doesn't have that. For me, that has been very helpful to get myself out. I believe that we can help ourselves see the positive and realize that there is a silver lining to everything. That has helped me to go on.
Anya: On behalf of the Muriel Steel Society Medical Student Committee, thank you so much for taking the time to share your inspiring story and your words of wisdom!
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