Hello SOTGC community,
It is a HUGE honor to introduce you to Dr. Melanie Hayden Gephart, Chief Resident at Stanford University Hospital in California. I was introduced to Melanie through another fabulous Medtronic female leader who found out about SOTGC and the Women In Medicine category and emailed me to say “I have a lady you HAVE to talk to. She is truly a modern day renaissance woman. Mother, involved mentor, Chief Neurosurgery resident, and is going to stay on as faculty at Stanford when she graduates next year.” So a few emails later and I found myself on a phone call with her.
What impressed me about Melanie is her calm, poised demeanor. Even though she was most likely finishing up her workday and probably on call she spoke with a clarity and “presence of moment” that made it seem like she had all the time in the world. You can learn a lot about someone who juggles critical patient care, a busy home life, AND makes you feel as if the conversation she is having with you is the only thing going on. Melanie it was an absolute pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to meeting you in person next time I’m up in Palo Alto.
Dr. Hayden Gephart grew up in Santa Rosa, CA and has one younger sister who is also finishing residency this year. When I asked her: “what was an AHA moment for you in your life?” She responded with: “The key realization for me was that I could achieve a whole and fulfilling life, balancing family, friends, hobbies, and academic neurosurgery. This is made easier with the help of an engaged and supportive partner. I just celebrated my ten year anniversary with my husband, who has been with me through graduate school and residency. ”
What got you into medicine?
Throughout high school and college I always enjoyed science and math, particularly neuroscience. I have always found the brain intriguing; it still amazes me how much we know about how the brain works, yet how much more we still have to learn. I considered focusing on a career in neuroscience, however, I felt medicine would better feed my humanistic drive, the fundamental principle of working daily to help people. I stayed at UCSD for medical school, with an interest in surgery, but not knowing yet which specialty would be the best fit. It was during my rotation in neurosurgery during medical school that I realized the specialty would be the best meld of my scientific interests and surgical skills. I was impressed by how many people you can help in this specialty. I was drawn to the intensity of neurosurgery; many of our patients are very sick and the surgical technique and tissues leave little to no margin for error. The training is arduous, but the great part about neurosurgery is that everyday I go home knowing I’ve helped someone; I’ve added good to the world in a small way. Next year, as neurosurgery faculty at Stanford treating brain tumors, I will be combining neurosurgery and basic science research to provide excellent surgical care for my patients today, and to develop new therapies for future patients.
Have you had a mentor along the way and if so, what are two valuable lessons they taught you?
Mentors are influential people who lead by example, supporting and inspiring you. My family offers a support network, and sustain my life. When I started on the neurosurgery path, there were very few mentors, and in fact many I initially spoke to were overtly discouraging of women in neurosurgery. While in medical school I didn’t know any female neurosurgeons. When I arrived for residency at Stanford, I found several great mentors, who created a supportive and unrestrictive environment where I could explore the dynamic opportunities of my career. They helped to keep me focused, motivated, and engaged. They encouraged me in two main ways:
- Choose experiences that challenge you beyond your comfort zone. This stretching is uncomfortable at first, but it makes you into a more dynamic and experienced professionally. Use the training and education process as a time to expand your skills exponentially and add depth to your capacity. As you gain this experience, stay true to projects you are passionate about.
- Have an advocate. Anyone starting off in her professional career needs an advocate who will make connections for you when things need to be done, will promote you to others even when you’re not looking to promote yourself, and will suggest you for high level collaborations.
Now I feel grateful to be able to mentor students interested in neurosurgery. One of the kindest complements I have been paid recently was by a former medical student. She had recently matched to a surgical subspecialty, and one day stopped me randomly in the hallway outside the operating room. She mentioned that when she was doubting her ability to balance life as a surgeon, she would see me operating in the hospital late at night, nine months pregnant, working hard but content, and she would say to herself, “If Melanie can do this I can do it too.” Sometimes, just living by example is enough.
What was the biggest challenge you overcame in med school/residency/fellowship?
Professional achievement requires having your personal life in perfect balance. One difficulty with surgery is the lack of control over your schedule. You don’t control when you take vacation, what weekends you have off, and when you will be home at night. In neurosurgery, emergencies are frequent, and your job is to be available to help. This inherent unpredictability wears on you and your relationships with others, especially in a long training program (seven years). To compensate for the lack of predictability it is important to have a safety net of family who you can rely on to help keep the rest of your life in order. When the people you rely on are suffering, when family or friends are ill, the only way to survive is to have a strong, extended support network that can jump in and help. It takes a village to raise a resident.
How do you maintain work life balance and what are some practical tips you can give people who are working on achieving this?
Part of the difficulty in work/life balance is that lack of control over your schedule and the sheer amount of time it takes to train as a neurosurgeon. What you can control is what you do with your time off and how efficient you are in the hospital. A great motivator for me to be efficient as a junior resident was that I needed to get home before my kids went bed, or else I wouldn’t see them for days on end (our workday starts at 5am). That doesn’t mean leaving work for others, or skirting out on your responsibilities, it just means being very focused, multitasking, and not wasting time at work. It also means having flexible bedtimes at home. I recommend to compartmentalize work from your personal life when possible. By that I mean when you have time off, disconnect from work and focus on the people with whom you are spending time. Be present in the moment. I am gone so frequently I owe my family and friends that much. It proves difficult when there is something particularly upsetting or urgent at work, but it is important for your health and the health of your relationships to spend that quality time. My mom always says relationships are like bank accounts; you have to make regular deposits because if you don’t, when you go to make a withdrawal, there might not be anything there. One of my favorite parts of the year is going camping with my family for a week, out where there is no internet, no cell coverage, no ability to be distracted or tempted work productivity. Find what keeps you healthy (running, baking, crafts, being with my family) and make time for that. It is the only way you can continue to do well what you love at work. You cannot do your work well, at least for very long, if you don’t keep yourself physically and mentally healthy.
What two pieces of advice would you give a woman who dreams of going into medicine?
- It’s a long road, but if it’s really your calling, then it’s the best job in the world. Decades of investment upfront, but in the end, the gift of practicing medicine is very fulfilling.
- Not everyone wants to have children, but if you decide to have a family then do it at a time that is best for your life. The timing is a complex decision between you and your partner, and you can meld work to fit your life, rather than vice versa.
What advice can you give residents who are embarking on their interview process for fellowship and how should they prepare?
I have a very relaxed approach to interviewing resident candidates at Stanford. To get through the initial screening process and be granted an interview, the candidates have achieved an incredible amount in their academic and personal lives. I am looking for someone who is going to be a team player, a compassionate doctor, and a leader in the field. Try to express your vision. Where do you see yourself achieving in residency and after? Articulate how you plan to get there. How will we (ie Stanford) help you achieve these goals?
What is your mantra?
Be grateful. Much of what we achieve is about hard work, ability, personality and making good choices. A significant portion of success, however, involves chance. There are so many things in life we have no control over, yet critically affect our ability to succeed: health, family resources, political stability of your country, having a safe childhood, non-discriminatory infrastructure and opportunities, etc. My ability to serve as a neurosurgeon and scientist is a blessing, for which I am thankful.