I waddled into my interview for my first job out of residency when I was eight months pregnant. My hopes for my new roles as a mother and an attending were as big as my belly, but I was woefully naïve about both.
Nilda Tensen, MD, my soon-to-be medical director, interviewed me that day. I didn't know then how much I needed Nilda's mentorship, but looking back, I realize that having a woman as my first boss was like hitting the professional jackpot.
Mentorship matters for women in medicine. Even the most well-intentioned male mentor has never experienced the dynamics of dealing with nurses, other doctors, and administrators as a female physician. Women in medicine need mentors who have walked the same path to help us around the gender-specific landmines ahead of us. Without Nilda's guidance, navigating motherhood and medicine would have been much more precarious for me.
Fresh out of residency, I was perplexed by how difficult it was for me to work with some of the nurses. I had never had problems getting along with anyone, so it was unsettling to perceive hostility from female nurses. Nilda was the one to explain to me that this is a typical dynamic between female doctors and female nurses. I don't know how long I would have continued feeling the angst of thinking it was me were it not for her. “When you get old, it will get better,” she assured me. She was right, as she typically was with so many of her wise words.
Support and Confidence
Nilda taught me to own my femininity. As a new attending, I thought I needed to tone down my inherent girly-girl side to be taken seriously. Nilda would sit in the middle of the nurses' station unashamedly talking to me about shopping, skin care, and menstrual cramps, showing me that workplace culture didn't have to be a boys' club and that I didn't have to try to be some watered-down version of myself for the sake of professionalism.
Nilda also supported me as a new mom. When I got pregnant with my second son just a few months after I started working for her, she celebrated rather than shamed me. Instead of treating my pregnancy as an inconvenience, Nilda eagerly anticipated me becoming a mother of two. When my second son was born, she gave him the blanket that became his security blankie and went everywhere with him for the first five years of his life.
When it came to balancing motherhood and medicine, Nilda led by example. Once while she was running a meeting, her phone blasted “Carry On, My Wayward Son” by Kansas. She nonchalantly said, “That's my son.” Then she shot him a quick text before she went back to her ED director duties, normalizing rather than apologizing for her family obligations. She consistently spoke of her two sons and all they were doing, modeling an admirable level of success as a mom and doctor. Seeing how she balanced both gave me the confidence that I too could raise fabulous boys while toiling in the ED.
I have not had a female medical director since Nilda, but I managed to hit the mentorship jackpot again, this time with writing. I attended the Social Media and Critical Care conference in Chicago in 2015 where I met Lisa Hoffman, the managing editor of EMN. I had been juggling mothering, doctoring, divorce, dating, and running (or whatever else I could do to maintain some semblance of wellness), and I had been tweeting about it all. Lisa had encountered my forthrightness on Twitter, and she said she saw something in me. Without having seen me write anything longer than a tweet, she offered me this column.
Lisa saw a talent in me that I hadn't seen in myself. My writing imposter syndrome when I met her was even bigger than my doctoring imposter syndrome when I met Nilda, but the best mentors help you bloom despite your self-doubt. “If you're passionate about the topic, your writing will be good” were some of her many wise words. She told me to speak from my heart, something women are not encouraged to do enough.
I have corresponded with Lisa for more than seven years now. Usually, our exchanges start with her gently reminding me that my article is overdue. (I am a procrastinator.) Then she asks about my life, and more often than not says something helpful about whatever is on my plate. This past week, I told her about my latest challenge in motherhood—helping my oldest apply to college. Also a mother of two boys, Lisa has been through it herself and had savvy suggestions about writing essays and selecting schools.
Maybe it's because I'm dealing with an editor who has a mastery of the written word, but I find Lisa's emails about seemingly mundane things to be profoundly insightful. Her thoughts about sexist responses to my articles, “mean girl” culture, and the reversal of Roe have been sources of support and direction.
Watching this strong, accomplished editor maneuver through the winter of her career is educational, albeit somewhat anxiety-provoking. She told her own mentor and role model, the late James Roberts, MD, “You can retire when I do,” because she felt she couldn't do her job without him. (EMN. 2022;44:1; https://bityl.co/ESoi.) I feel the same about writing without her.
Models of Success
Every EP should have mentors like Nilda and Lisa. They helped me through countless professional and personal difficulties. Nilda was there for me through divorce. Lisa was there for me when I got fired from my ED for writing too honestly. Having them in my corner meant I always had pillars of wisdom and support when things felt like they were imploding around me.
To newly minted female EPs, find a mentor whose life looks something like what you want your own life to be. Seeing someone like yourself—who for me were also mothers of two boys—succeed primes your psyche for your own success. Watching Nilda and Lisa thrive in emergency medicine and journalism while they raised successful sons reassured me that I can do it too.
To more seasoned women in medicine, keep in mind that younger female physicians are looking for their own Nildas and Lisas. Tomorrow's female doctors need models of success beyond the antiquated stereotype of white male doctors, so be open to mentor-mentee relationships with the next generation. Strong women in medicine empower other strong women in medicine.
Dr. Simonsis a full-time night emergency physician in Richmond, VA, and a mother of two. Follow her on Twitter@ERGoddessMD, and read her past columns athttp://bit.ly/EMN-ERGoddess.