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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Thirty years ago, when Mayo Clinic's Mary O'Connor, M.D., was deciding on a specialty after medical school, she heard that orthopedic surgeons had to be strong — so they could saw through bones — and should be former athletes so they could relate to the musculoskeletal system. Oh, and one other thing — that this male-dominated profession wasn't kind to women who wanted family time.
Today, some women in medical school are still led to believe that orthopedic surgeons are required to be strong and athletic and that women need not apply. Dr. O'Connor rejected that stereotype and is on a mission to convince young women that they should, too.
"It wasn't true then, and it isn't true now," says Dr. O'Connor, chair of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Mayo Clinic in Florida.
She tells young women that they can, and should, think about becoming orthopedic surgeons. On Feb. 23, in Jacksonville, 32 female students, mostly from local high schools, will spend a day with Dr. O'Connor and four other orthopedic surgeons, in an outreach program sponsored by the Perry Initiative and the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Mayo.
At the event, Dr. O'Connor and her colleagues will guide the women in hands-on learning exercises. The participants will wear scrubs and use surgical drills, plates and screws to repair hard foam "bones" and medical needles to stitch faux wounds.
"This is designed to break down the barriers and dispel the myths that have stopped women from going into this kind of surgery," Dr. O'Connor says. "You don't need to be strong — we have power tools — and you don't have to be an athlete to understand the body. It is also important for women to know that they can be an orthopedic surgeon and have a family life, as I do."
Dr. O'Connor is one of the few women in the country to chair an orthopedics' surgery department.
Dr. O'Connor was the first woman elected president of the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons and has helped lead other national and international orthopedic surgery professional societies and associations.
Dr. O'Connor says the specialty is far from achieving gender balance. In 2009, women accounted for only 13 percent of all residents in orthopedic surgery; 20 percent of residents in internal medicine were female. The same trend is seen in surgery — 13 percent of orthopedic surgeons are women, compared with 26 percent of general surgeons. This disparity matters because patients benefit from a diversity of caregivers, Dr. O'Connor says. Some women prefer a female physician, and gender bias in treatment may be an issue in orthopedic surgery, she says.
"We have some evidence that there is unconscious gender bias in the advice orthopedic surgeons offer to their patients," she says. "One study found, for example, that when orthopedic surgeons evaluated a man with moderate knee arthritis and a woman with the same condition — a clinical situation where there is some judgment as to whether surgery should be recommended — orthopedic surgeons were 22 times more likely to suggest knee replacement to the man than to the woman. Nearly all the surgeons were male."
Dr. O'Connor's passion for pursuing a career in orthopedic surgery comes from several important life lessons learned as a member of the U.S. Olympic rowing team in 1980. That year, the United States boycotted the summer Olympics in Moscow as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "Yes, it was a big disappointment to miss the Olympics," says Dr. O'Connor, "but one has to put this in the right perspective. I chose to focus on the honor of being selected to the team."
The experience taught her about leadership, priorities, persistence, and what's really important in life. In 1985, she was accepted as a resident in orthopedic surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She joined the Orthopedic Surgery staff at Mayo Clinic in Florida in 1991, and since 2005 has served as department chair.
Dr. O'Connor's work to bring women into her profession includes writing a guide for young women on how to succeed in orthopedic surgery. Last year, she joined the board of the Perry Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring young women to become leaders in orthopedic surgery and engineering.