When claims of sexual harassment surfaced in the medical profession last year, questions were asked about gender inequality and whether medicine was suffering from dusty, male-dominated traditions.
Just last month Australia’s top neurosurgeon Dr Charlie Teo again spoke about the extreme bullying that goes on in the medical profession and openly supported Senator Nick Xenophon’s call for an inquiry into the industry, with hopes it will lead to a Royal Commission.
While only eight per cent of surgeons in Australia are women, some are forging ahead with great career prospects. Many women enter medical school — 52 per cent of medical undergraduates are female — but numbers tend to decline once they have children.
Weekend found four Melbourne women who continue to be trail blazers in the areas of research, IVF, emergency care and surgery...
Dr Chantel Thornton
When most doctors become specialist surgeons, their honorific shifts from Dr to Ms, Miss or Mr. But Epworth breast surgeon Chantel Thornton didn’t only decide to retain her doctor’s title:
“I actually just like people to call me Chantel.”
Thornton is a breath of fresh air in the Melbourne medical world. Being natural, compassionate and warm are some of her charms.
She is genuinely caring, choosing breast surgery as her specialty so she can spend more time getting to know her patients and their families, helping them make lifestyle changes, as well as being on top of the latest research and developments in her field.
“One of the first things I say to my patients is that we’re in this together because healing is a joint venture, Thornton says. You have to be like a team. I want my patients to know I’m here to support them through the process and I believe that is so important.”
Treating people with respect is enough because it allows the patient to know you are going to listen to what they say while also sharing your professional opinion.” Thornton, 37, was born in Tasmania. Her father was a bank manager and there was no history of medical accomplishment in the family, other than an aunt who was a hospital matron. Yet, Thornton was dux of her medical school, the University of Tasmania, graduating with first-class honours. She also won eight university prizes, then a scholarship to the University of Hong Kong to take an honours degree in Bachelor of Medical Science.
She completed her surgical training at The Alfred hospital and gained her surgical fellowship at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in 2010.
She spends a lot of her time heavily involved in philanthropy, such as the Flying Doctor Service, as well as with The Alfred’s trauma care unit.
She is on The Alfred’s Committee of Women, is a board member of the Foundation for Surgery at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and an honorary lecturer at Monash University.
Thornton began her surgical career as a general surgeon but the prospect of removing someone’s gall bladder and never seeing them again did not hold much appeal.
“I see my patients, and their families, for many years which is very rewarding,” she says. It can be quite harrowing, but I would still prefer to have a connection with my patients.
An orthopedic surgeon would spend 80 per cent of his time operating and 20 per cent talking. I spend 70 per cent of my time talking or consulting and 30 per cent operating. Luckily, most ladies that present with breast lumps don’t have breast cancer or require surgery.”
An early experience set her career path when three of her maternal aunts suffered breast cancer. One died when Thornton was young and it left a lasting impact.
Her maternal grandmother had breast cancer and a mastectomy before Thornton was born and a maternal first cousin also suffered the disease.
“I have very vivid memories of my aunt having chemotherapy, losing her hair, having a mastectomy and eventually passing away when I was nine.”
The strong connection she feels towards women was another motivation in choosing to specialise in breast cancer.
Then, of course there is the intellectual stimulation of her work, with oncology research and surgery changing all the time.
Prof Suzanne Garland
Few scientists can claim to not only have helped establish the cause of a disease in their lifetime but also to have lived to see a prevention.
Suzanne Garland, director of microbiology and infectious diseases at the Royal Women’s Hospital, had a title early in her career that may not have impressed many people but she was proud of it — the wart queen.
Her life’s work has been devoted to finding the connection between human papilloma virus (HPV) and cervical cancer and she led the trials into the HPV vaccine.
“In my lifetime I’ve been lucky to see a virus proven to cause disease and then the intervention rolled out at a public health level and see the rates of disease fall away,” she says.
When Garland, in her 60s, began her medical career 30 years ago she was advised to wear a red dress to stand out in the sea of men in black suits roaming the hospital corridors.
At that time there was a smattering of women working part-time but she was the only woman working full-time at the Women’s.
“It’s still not easy for women to have a career in medicine and pull all the elements of her life together,” she says.
“I was known as the pregnant registrar because I had four children in eight years.”
She married while still a medical student and worked part-time while she had her children, now 40, 37, 35 and 33.
“I had some real discrimination as a medical student, which wasn’t easy but we went overseas and that changed things,” she says.
“We took three children and came back with four. My husband, who also works in medicine, had fellowships at Harvard and Sheffield, so I worked at each of those places, too, which helped me a lot when we returned to Australia.”
In the UK she worked in a public health laboratory but also had a good clinical and diagnostic grounding, which she continues to practise, regularly making ward visits. She still works as a sexual health physician.
At Harvard she worked in molecular biology, which was in its infancy, and she brought those tools back to the Women’s.
“At that stage, in the early ’80s HPV and cervical cancer was very fresh and new so I set up a molecular laboratory,” she says.
“I chose the right bug to work on, even though people thought it was crazy at the time. I had proof that cervical cancer was caused by HPV.”
Garland’s work hasn’t stopped, with her focus turning towards preventive medicine in young women’s health and using social networks to do it, a project known as the Young Female Health Initiative (YFHY).
About 350 women have taken part in the study but she needs 100 more.
Associate Prof Kate Stern
When Kate Stern started out in medicine she thought psychiatry would be her specialty. It was only by accident that she fell into reproductive medicine and is now one of the world leaders in the field.
Without her passion for helping women who have suffered cancer to have children, many would never realise their dream.
“My biggest achievement and the thing that has really driven me for the last 10 years has been fertility preservation,” Stern, 52, says.
“It’s the patients who say they are going to have cancer therapy but what can I do about my fertility? More and more people are surviving their cancers and we’ve made great inroads in the last 10 years.”
Associate Professor Stern is the head of the fertility preservation service at the Royal Women’s Hospital and Melbourne IVF and is part of a team that is leading the world with tissue grafting and post-cancer fertility.
In her unit alone, 1500 women have preserved their eggs and hundreds have been able to have babies.
When young women — aged up to their 40s — are about to have cancer treatment, part of one ovary can be removed and frozen in small slices. If the woman becomes menopausal after cancer treatment, this tissue can be grafted back into the pelvis. After about four months, the eggs, suspended in age before the chemotherapy, begin to grow and become mature eggs, which may enable a pregnancy.
In the past, women whose ovaries had to be removed as part of their therapy had grim prospects of being able to reproduce.
Stern’s team developed a way to graft the frozen ovarian tissue on the abdominal wall, away from the original site, and several babies have already been born.
“Our scientists have really been working on how to make the tissue viable so that we can now freeze eggs in a way that is better than we used to do. We are one of only three countries in the world that has escalated this area to now being regarded as an important area of medicine and we’re the leaders in Australia, having done the world’s first abdominal grafting.”
Dr Kate Martin
Research and laboratories have never been Kate Martin’s idea of medicine.
The general and trauma surgeon at The Alfred hospital says medicine has always been about people for her since watching a Robert Winston BBC series as a child, and remains a great source of pride in her life.
“If I wasn’t proud of what I have achieved I couldn’t persist because of the hours and time away from home,” Martin says.
“I actually don’t even know what my hours are.”
Roughly, she works 7am-6pm and remains on call if she has operated on a patient. The variety of work in the trauma department means she isn’t confined to one speciality, working across wards, emergency and intensive care. As a general surgeon she shifts from treating patients with appendicitis to a blocked bowel but is the only woman trauma specialist at The Alfred.
The honour does not rest heavily on her though, because she recognises everything she achieves is a team effort, despite acknowledging her specific skills.
“There is a lot of decision making and I need to be able to recognise injuries without absolute confirmation, so I need to make decisions based on probability of injury,” she says.
When Martin began her medical career, most of the senior doctors were men but now she says both genders are equally represented in the trauma department.
There used to be more women nurses but now there are just as many male nurses, especially in emergency, she adds. Martin, 43, says while she is inspired by her husband and two sons, aged 14 and 11, it is often her patients who teach her the most about life and the human condition. In emergency, she sees people at their most vulnerable but also at their most keen to get well.
“I often look at patients suffering and wonder if I could go through it. It’s very much a privilege to work with patients and seeing into parts of their lives not seen in any other forum.”