I think about what it must have been like for Elizabeth Blackwell. Fighting to get a spot in medical school, fighting the bias in its every obvious and subtle presentation. Having no other women to mentor her, to commiserate with, to lift each other up when training was so hard. I think, “I couldn’t have done all that. I wouldn’t have been worth it to me.” The sacrifice, the emotional toll, the likely negative energy she waded through day in day out. I feel like I would have said, “This isn’t worth it,” and then left for greener pastures.
But I am so glad she didn’t think like me. Or at least not long enough to drop out. I didn’t have to fight her fight for the first time or female physicians’ fight alone because of the path she and so very many others before me forged. I am so thankful for the privilege of being a physician; and Elizabeth Blackwell and those that followed her, they made it possible. They broke into a field no one thought a woman should or could practice. And others joined them, more with each generation.
And now we have normalized the concept. My son actually asked me once, “Mom can boys be doctors too?” Very proudly smiling on behalf of all women physicians, I answered “Yes, baby, you can be anything you want to be.”
Now it is up to us to make medicine better. For our patients yes, but also as a career. We have to make it so that when our children want to be physicians, we are happy for them. Because we know the culture of medicine is a supportive one of physicians caring for each other so that we can continue to care for our patients.
I was on call one night, preparing to return to the hospital. My daughter, who was 5 at the time asked me, “Mom, you go to work to help mommies and their babies be safe, right?” In her generous heart she was trying to reconcile the sadness that she felt in me leaving with the good it could mean for some else. I answered “Yes, sweet girl I do. My job is to help mommies and their babies. But I also work to help other doctors, to make it safe to be a doctor. I want to help doctors too.”
I love my job. I love the extra time my sub-specialty consults allow for me to get to know folks, to really connect. But I make a point to reach out to my colleagues too, to be open and honest about my experience with anxiety/PTSD/burnout, because you never know what amazing physician is out there, struggling silently because we’ve all be trained to think we aren’t allowed to struggle. I don’t want to lose any more amazing physicians to the struggle in darkness and silence. It is a noble calling to help patients. We all are patients.
Meaning and purpose drive us and keep us going when other motivators can’t. They make “it” worth it. That must be what Elizabeth Blackwell relied upon during the toughest days. Could she have known what the face of medicine would look like now, because of her immense sacrifice and efforts? I’m sure she would be proud to see us now ladies. Let’s honor the legacy of the women who came before us by pouring into others in our profession and making medicine better. #IamBlackwell