There are approximately 160,000 surgeons in the United States – and only 19 percent are women.
Recent research has found that there are meaningful differences in how men and women practice medicine and communicate with their patients. Because women have faced higher barriers to gain access to the operating room, women surgeons are the very best at their craft.
In a field that has been traditionally dominated by men, University Surgical Associates is proud to have four highly trained and highly skilled women surgeons who are making waves in their respective areas of expertise and who are providing exceptional care for their patients. Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling Dr. Laura Witherspoon (breast surgery), Dr. Lisa Smith (pediatric surgery), Dr. Erica Clark (vascular surgery) and Dr. Shauna Lorenzo-Rivero (colorectal surgery).
These top-notch surgeons bring a unique perspective to practicing medicine and are finding ways to encourage and mentor upcoming women surgeons as they navigate medical school, internship and residency training. Read on to learn more about why Dr. Witherspoon chose surgery as a profession, how she handles challenges and what she enjoys most about her career.
Laura Witherspoon, MD, FACS
Q: Why did you become a surgeon?
A: I don’t think you decide to become a surgeon – surgery chooses you. It finds you and you get bitten by the surgery bug, and that’s it. During my third year of medical school, I had no intention of becoming a surgeon. I really enjoyed all the different areas of my training, but the rest of my rotations paled in comparison. It was not a common choice, especially at that time, and not a casual thing to decide. But I was certain it was for me.
Q: What do you think women in general bring to the field of surgery? What specials skills or perspectives do you have?
A: It’s been reported that women physicians, on average, spend more time with their patients. Understanding their concerns and connecting personally is a high priority for me. Women have a unique ability to juggle a range of responsibilities while maintaining that deep connection with our patients. I believe this ability to multi-task is also an asset in the operating room. I do things differently from my male colleagues, and I’ve learned through the years not to apologize for it.
Q: How do you handle the challenging aspects of being a female surgeon?
A: When I first joined USA, all of my partners were male and mostly had wives that stayed home. I am married to another surgeon. I was never treated with any lack of respect, but it was difficult to find other women in a similar situation to relate to. No matter if you’re a surgeon or are working in another career, most women retain much of the responsibility for raising the family.
One of the best ways for women to succeed in this male dominated field is to find mentors – women who have gone before and can offers ideas and support as you create a life that includes work and family time. I’ve been lucky to be supported by my colleagues at USA, and together with Dr. Shauna Lorenzo, we’ve created a Lady Surgeons Club. It’s an informal group that meets regularly with female surgery residents.
When it started, we didn’t have an agenda. We wanted to offer a place where these women could talk about whatever is on their minds. I believe my role is to share my experience and ways I’ve addressed common challenges. I found it helpful to hear how other women surgeons structured their practice, and I like passing on that perspective as we all work to find the right balance for ourselves and our families.
Q: If you could do it again, would you choose surgery?
A: Absolutely, I can’t image anything else that would have been this awesome! At 59, I’m at the 10,000-hour level – meaning I’ve been in surgery for that many hours and am at the height of my surgical expertise. Cognitively and technically, I can do the most for my patients right now than at any point in my career.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
A: I think this is a common answer among female physicians – I love my patients. I love the feedback and care more about them then the other aspects of my job including what others think about me. It’s the relationship I have with my patients that brings me the most satisfaction.
Dr. Laura Witherspoon earned her medical degree from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. She completed an internship and residency in general surgery at the University of California, Fresno-Central San Joaquin Valley Medical Education in Fresno California. She served as a staff general surgeon in the U.S. Air Force before joining USA in 1997.
Dr. Witherspoon is an associate professor, department of surgery, UT College of Medicine. She is board certified through the American Board of Surgery (ABS) and a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (FACS). Dr. Witherspoon specializes in breast surgery.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Witherspoon, call (423) 267-0466