Hello SOTGC community,
Today we have the honor of getting to know Dr. Sonia Ramamoorthy. I first met Sonia when one of my surgeons introduced us during a case at Thornton Hospital, which is part of UCSD Medical Center. However, prior to meeting her I got to see her speak at a conference in San Diego, and the topic was about work/life balance. As soon as I created the Women In Medicine category I knew I wanted to interview Sonia. What I admire about this woman is that not only does she have a demanding, high stress job, but she is an involved mother, wife, and has found a way to “have it all.” I hope you enjoy learning about Sonia and the Women In Science group that she is a founder of.
What got you into medicine?
Well, there is a lot of heart disease in my family and that’s how it started. When I was 16 one of my uncles had a major heart attack, and so I went with my Mom to go visit and spend some time there. I remember being in the ICU and being FACINATED with all the lines, all the beeping, all the poles around my uncles bed. The cardiologist my uncle had was amazing! I watched him work and observed how he interacted with his patients, and us and I said to myself “I want to be THAT person! I want to make that kind of impact and help sick people!”
Have you had a mentor along the way and if so, what are two valuable lessons they taught you?
I did have mentors along the way. Early on they were all male, there really weren’t a lot of female mentors for me to choose from. Later in life I have had some great female mentors and role models who have had a major impact on my career and personal life. That’s part of why I started Women in Surgery at UCSD, which has now become part of a larger initiative at UCSD for Women In Medicine. I wanted the young women coming up into medicine to have an opportunity to interact with more female role models, and for us to be easily accessible for them to find. Here are the two lessons my mentors taught me.
Choose your battles carefully. When you’re young it’s easy to react and not realize the consequences. I learned early on to work on my emotional intelligence. I picked what was worth fighting for, and if it wasn’t, I had to let it go. That was hard, still is. My first mentor helped make me aware of the fact that every one of my reactions has a consequence, and so to make sure I was reacting in a way to get the best possible outcome. I think women especially are more scrutinized on their reactions. That being said, I think it’s important for women and men to be aware of how they’re presenting themselves. This has helped me be a better surgeon, wife, mother, and leader.
As hard as it is…always put family first. What I’ve found with women who have demanding careers is that at about the time they get married and start a family, is when their career is on a steep upward trajectory. You will have many opportunities, many options, and they will all require a lot more work. My husband and I actually learned this lesson together. When we were trying to figure out where to both (he is a Cardiologist) settle for work we initially decided to live apart for career reasons. I was at UCSF and he stayed at UCSD. After two years, one child and another on the way, we were going back and forth about staying up in northern California or going to San Diego. This caused a lot of frustration and discussions about who’s career was more important, money, opportunity, etc. After months of this, back and forth offers, my husband’s mentor pulled him aside one day and said: “Ajit, remember you can always find another job, you cannot find another wife.” This hit home for both of us, my husband and I have always made it a point to put family first, its not always easy in our profession but if we are ever internally conflicted we go back to our golden rule.
What was the biggest challenge you overcame in med school/residency or even as an attending surgeon?
I had two and I’m not sure if you want to put this in your blog, but it really made an impact on me and because of this I am very protective of my female residents. Basically, a very well regarded and renowned surgeon (he has since passed) made a very inappropriate pass at me when I was a medical student. Though I let him know I wasn’t at all interested in what he was suggesting, I wonder how many other women he did this with who weren’t able to say no. I felt bad for a long time. I had lost a mentor, Moreover I was discouraged about surgery. All that time he had spent with me, giving me advice and promoting my career was not because I was a great student but about something else altogether. Girlfriends were my saviors who quickly reminded me I have a goal and no man or woman was going to get in the way, I had come too far already. They were right and I got over that! For this reason I have an open door policy with my residents and I have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.
(SOTGC readers. I vacillated for awhile before deciding to put this in here. This blog is not about going into stories that could cause an uproar because it is not about “man hating” but about in collaboration with our male colleagues and highlighting amazing women. However, I decided to put it in solely because I hope that if there is a woman reading this, and she has found herself in a similar situation. I want you to know that saying “hell no!” doesn’t mean you won’t go on to have a thriving career. So take a page out of Sonia’s book, say no, and go on to do amazing things with your career)
The second biggest challenge was here, as a faculty member. My husband was hit by a car and going through that process of checking someone into the trauma ER, going through the day, surgery, getting him home, and trying to deal with a husband in extreme pain, in a wheel chair, while I was 8 months pregnant REALLY gave me the full experience of what a patient and their loved one goes through. The questions, the worry, the details to line up the wheel chair and getting that person home, changing the routine, the house, dealing with the kids alone all were tough but valuable. This experience has helped me with my patients, I now know what they go through. I can completely empathize with them since I know first hand how scary and difficult it can be.
How do you maintain work life balance and what are two practical tips you can give people who are working on achieving this?
Every day you HAVE to take time out to do something JUST FOR YOU. For me that is working out. It’s my time to be with my own thoughts, to work off some of this stress, and to keep everything in perspective. Women tend to internalize their stress and that will have physical effects on the body if there isn’t some kind of release. My workouts are something I have to do and even though I feel guilty or that there almost isn’t time…I make myself take this break.
As we get older, have more demanding jobs, and have a family, the “to do” list just gets longer and longer. Every day I pick ONE thing, no matter how small it may be, and I make sure I can check it off the to do list. Even if it’s just to sign my son up for camp, or drop off the dry cleaning, etc. I make sure I get the satisfaction of checking something off that ever-growing list every day.
What keeps you going on days when you’re exhausted and worn down?
My kids, the second I see their faces the stress of the day just melts away and I’m in my happy place. However, before I am even able to see them, my team at work helps me. My administrative assistant is amazing, she can see or hear it when I am overloaded and she’ll move things around my schedule to give me some down time. She is truly a gem and I make sure she knows this. My female colleagues and staff at the hospital can always brighten my day and we are pretty good with supporting each other when we are overwhelmed. I’d say that’s one thing that, as a busy woman, you need to have; a good team surrounding you and a support group that can empathize with your hectic life.
What are two lessons that you wish you had learned earlier in your career?
- Not to say no to opportunities. Obviously you have to pick and choose based on what outside factors are going on in your life. But when there is an opportunity that I think can be worked into the rest of the schedule, I take it.
- I should have advocated more for myself when I was younger. I think women have a harder time than men doing this. There were times when something would come up that I wanted to be part of and I kept quiet. And then after I would be so mad at myself for not even throwing my hat in the ring. I make an effort now to speak up if there is an opportunity that I want to take.
What two pieces of advice would you give a woman who dreams of going into medicine?
- Anything good in life always takes hard work. Medicine is a hard profession, we have so much responsibility and when you couple that with having a full life we have to realize we are going to work hard…but it’s worth it! Think of it like this, when you want to run a marathon you don’t just wake up one day and do it. You train your body for months in advance. If you want a career in medicine you will have to train your mind for years, but when you get to that finish line and graduate and look back, you’ll realize what a GREAT journey it has been.
- For those women who are thinking about a career in medicine but want to have a family, I think there is a BRIGHT future for you in medicine. So if this is your dream, follow it, chase it down, never give it up and never worry that you can’t have it all. It’ll be a hard road, you might not have everything at once, but you’ll have your dream if you push through with it.
What initiatives on “getting more women into science” give you hope for the future of women in medicine?
Well, I helped start a group at UCSD called “Women in Surgery.” It started with just a few of us women surgeons, who would get together for dinner or happy hour or at each others’ houses, and just empathize and support each other. Then we started inviting some of the medical students that rotated with us and the group grew and the demand was such that we have expanded it and now it’s called the Women In Science. We have a formal structure where guest speakers (surgeons, business people, etc) come in and inspire, motivate, and give some real life advice to these aspiring young women. We wanted this to be very practical and not just medicine heavy. Because once you graduate, you’re faced with real life and so our speakers help take the lessons they have learned and teach these young women how to move forward in all aspects (personal and professional) as they advance in their career.
What is your mantra?
Challenges are gifts, they’re there to get you ready for the next phase of your life.