Bridging the Gender Gap: Women in Surgery
On National Women Physicians Day, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849 and an advocate for women in medicine. In honor of Dr. Blackwell’s legacy, we’re sharing perspectives from two AUC alumni on the challenges they’ve faced—and surmounted—as women in historically male-dominated specialties.
Valerie Garden, MD '89
Ophthalmologist and Oculoplastic Surgeon
During residency, Dr. Valerie Garden was one of just two women in her class of 25. Yet she was never fazed by the gender gap in her chosen profession. In fact, for a long time, she had no idea it existed.
Why? Her mother, a pharmacist, specifically sought out female physicians and dentists to serve as role models for her daughters as they were growing up. “Even though men were much more prevalent in medicine at the time, the only people we saw for our checkups were women,” Dr. Garden says. “It certainly never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it.”
That outlook has served her well throughout her medical career. During her clinical rotations, one faculty member tried to dissuade her from pursuing surgery, as he didn’t believe women could be successful in the field. But after seeing Dr. Garden skillfully navigate several surgery rotations—and honor in all of them—he changed his tune, telling her, “You were born to be a cutter.”
“It just never bothered me somehow,” Dr. Garden says, looking back on the experience. “You can’t let someone else’s negativity become your negativity. I was there to learn, and I had some wonderful professors and mentors who supported me on my path.”
After medical school, Dr. Garden completed her surgical internship and most of her glaucoma clinical research fellowship at the University of California - San Diego. She then completed her ophthalmology residency and oculoplastic reconstructive surgery fellowship at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
Today, she feels fortunate to be a mentor herself, as well as give back to the community where she practices. Dr. Garden volunteers through Operation Access, an organization that enables Bay Area health care providers to donate vital surgical and specialty care to underprivileged patients. From her practice in Santa Rosa, CA, Dr. Garden performs approximately eight oculoplastic and/or cataract cases per year for patients identified through the organization.
“All of us have to remember that wherever we are in our education, we’re mentors to someone—even though we may not realize it,” Dr. Garden says. “I give so much credit to my mother and my general practitioner, who gave me the idea of becoming a physician, and I was blessed to have exceptional mentors during my training. It’s very rewarding to pass on the legacy of the people who have supported me.”
Sarah Cazorla, MD '11
Sarah Cazorla, MD ’11 always knew exactly how competitive it was to pursue plastic surgery, her career goal since high school. She came up with backup plans at every step in her journey just in case, including biomedical research, public health work, and medical translation (she studied Spanish and Portuguese during undergrad at the University of Tampa).
She didn’t end up needing any of them—although her proficiency with languages comes in handy when speaking with patients. After graduating from AUC, Dr. Cazorla matched into general surgery at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and continued on to earn a fellowship in plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. She credits AUC with providing her unique experiences that supported her development as a surgeon.
“Through AUC’s clinical affiliates, we’re exposed to diverse hospital settings throughout our training and have the advantage of learning from many different physicians—which helped me advance in technical skills,” says Dr. Cazorla.
The gender gap in plastic surgery is striking, with women comprising just 16 percent of active plastic surgeons, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges’ 2018 Physician Specialty Data Report. While Dr. Cazorla says “the tides are turning” as the specialty becomes more welcoming to women, it will take time for the effects of the disparity to be gone entirely.
“I’ve been pregnant twice in residency, and I’ve definitely met challenges because of that,” Dr. Cazorla says. “And on any given day, there’s still a likelihood that if I walk into a patient’s room, they’re going to call me ‘Nurse.’ But we have a strong bond in the female surgery community. We support each other. And overall I think people are becoming more enlightened that not only can women be surgeons, they can be great surgeons.”
Dr. Cazorla aspires to have a private practice that offers a combination of breast reconstruction and cosmetic surgery. She also hopes to eventually do international mission work, particularly in South America where she could use her languages.
“One of the key tenets of plastic surgery is restoring form and function to people. You’re not simply trying to make people pretty, but you’re giving back something people have lost, especially with breast reconstruction and women who have lost breasts to cancer,” says Dr. Cazorla. “Being able to restore them in that way is not only a gift to them, it’s incredibly gratifying as a surgeon.”