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Surgical Sisterhood


In June, Cape Fear Valley’s general surgery residency program will celebrate its first group of graduates. After five years of training, four new surgeons are all set to begin long and rewarding careers. And they’re all women, something not at all common in a gathering of surgeons. “It’s very rare to have an all-female group of surgeons,” said Kelly Van Fossen, DO, the program’s director (and a practicing surgeon herself, at Fern creek General Surgery). “To even see a 50/50 mix is rare.” Rachel Hall, DO, Teressa Starr, DO, Dezarae Leto, DO, and Maryselle Winters, DO, complete this unique group. Although women currently make up just over half of medical-school graduates, surgery has persisted as a very male-dominated field. Studies suggest that many women in medical school have felt actively steered away from surgery with comments based on their gender, while others find that its demands are just not compatible with the work-life balance they need while building a family. “There was sometimes a boys’ club mentality,” said Dr. Van Fossen, recalling her own training, “and there was definitely an expectation that the residency came first and everything else came second.” The priorities were different for this group, Dr. Van Fossen said. One of the residents had a baby during her training and has balanced the demands of motherhood and surgical training with the support of her colleagues. “It’s a very close-knit group,” she said. “These women are very supportive of one another, and very on board with each other’s life phases.” Having more women in surgery isn’t just a win for equality – it may also be good news for patients. A 2017 study found that patients of female surgeons had lower death rates, fewer complications, and lower rates of readmission to the hospital. A 2021 study found this is particularly true when the patient is also a woman. “I think we tend to be better listeners,” said Dr. Van Fossen. “We really hear what our patients are saying and take them seriously, and when they’re women we can often relate to what they’re telling us.”

As more women become surgeons, seeing that representation will encourage younger women to consider it as a career.

Dr. Van Fossen said that as more women become surgeons, seeing that representation will encourage younger women to consider it as a career. “I knew zero female surgeons when I was growing up,” she said, “but our family doctor was a woman. And when I decided to become a physician, I met more and more women who had gone into surgery.” She said she’s been especially pleased to have women colleagues to point to as her residents have advanced through their training. “Cape Fear Valley is fortunate to have some great female surgeons,” she said. For young women currently thinking of becoming a surgeon, Dr. Van Fossen has some advice. "Think hard about what you want from life, not just your career, and consider work-life balance,” she said. “Being a working mother can be really challenging.” Still, the rewards have been worth it for her. As a general surgeon, she does a lot of what she calls “bread and butter” surgeries – gallbladder removals, hernia repairs and the like – and says she never gets tired of it. “We often see patients at their most vulnerable,” she said, “so it’s rewarding to be able to help them get past a very painful or scary time.” The four graduating residents will be scattering in different directions, including one who’s headed all the way to New Mexico. As Dr. Van Fossen prepares to send them off into their surgical careers, she hopes they’ll stay in touch with her and each other. “We’ve built relationships for years to come,” she said. “I’ve told them to call me anytime, to run a case by me or just catch up. I’m so proud of them.” 

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