Succeeding against all odds

By Erika Schwartz, MD

Today, more young women than ever are dazzled by the idea of becoming doctors. They dominate medical schools as they do many other professional schools and higher education in general. It’s a far cry from 150 years ago when Elizabeth Blackwell made history as the first woman admitted to an American medical school.

And it’s a far cry from the early 1970s when I applied to medical school in the midst of a changing society.

Despite a new wave of feminism then, I hit all the roadblocks possible – men trying to avoid the draft and getting priority acceptance; ratios of approval to medical schools strictly enforced (my school had a 35 student limit for both women and African-Americans at the time); sexual discrimination because I was pretty; and recommendations from many an interviewer that I get married and give up the ridiculous idea of becoming a doctor.

I know many smart, hard-working women who just gave up. Fortunately for me, I was among the lucky ones who had family support and the fire in the belly to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor.
I did get into medical school and ignored the discrimination that was all-pervasive. For decades when asked if I ever encountered discrimination, I always said no, because I refused to see it for fear that it would stop me from going forward.

I never expected that once I became a physician – having graduated cum laude and gained admittance to AOA, the medical students’ honor society – once I had proven my ability to absorb and translate the interminable hours of training into clinical practice, once I proved myself a good, caring and decent human being – that the discrimination, sexism and glass ceiling would follow me and get even more difficult to ignore.

My first job out of medical training was as the director of emergency medicine at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. The tower of beds had recently opened and the hospital hadn’t even been designated a trauma center when I got there at the age of 28 in 1978.

My boss – the chairman of the Department of Medicine at New York Medical College, the medical school affiliated with the hospital at the time – was primarily focused on getting more patients and billing more. Although early on in the deterioration of the health care system, I was faced with the priority of the bottom line ahead of patient care right from the start of my career.

As a woman who went into medicine because I wanted to help people, I found the approach disturbing. For four years, I worked hard to get the medical center certified as a tertiary trauma center, to start an ambulance and helicopter medevac program and to create a new specialty soon to become emergency medicine.
Finally, when I decided to go into private practice to be closer to my patients and become part of their lives, my boss called me into his office and told me how it would cost him at least twice as much as he was paying me to get a replacement. He did tell me I was good at running the ER, ambulatory care, employability screening and employee health, but I was also cheap and he was not happy to have to pay someone more to do the jobs.

He did get a replacement, a man who was paid at least twice as much as I made.

As for me, I just kept on moving forward in my quest to be a better doctor and help more people.

To this day, as I enter the year that I become president of SUNY-Downstate College of Medicine board of managers, I still take care of patients, write books and give talks, but I am more honest when I reflect on how difficult it has been to get here.

I mentor young women and teach them to believe in themselves and not accept discrimination as an excuse to dissuade them from becoming physicians or lawyers, or anything they want to be.

I also make sure to remind women that becoming a physician should never mean they must behave more like men, as many women doctors told me when I was young.

Indeed, I tell women to hold on to our femininity, caring and humanity and stress that nurturing empathy. They are the qualities that make us better doctors and better healers.

And from where I stand, 35 years into this profession, it’s these qualities more so than the scientific data, the harsh training and the male-dominated system that have made me the doctor I am.

For more information, email Dr. Erika at Erika@drerika.com.

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