Spotlight on Women in Orthopaedics: Dr. Laura L. Tosi

Spotlight on Women in Orthopaedics: Dr. Laura L. Tosi

Chika Okafor

MS III, Howard University College of Medicine

Following my first year of medical school, I spent my summer participating in the Nth Dimensions Orthopaedic Summer Internship Program at Children’s National Health System, in Washington, DC. My mentor there was Dr. Laura Tosi. The Nth Dimensions Orthopaedic Summer Internship Program is an 8-week experience meant to immerse students in the research and clinical aspects of a career in Orthopaedic Surgery. But in my time with Dr. Tosi, I gained much more than that. Her experience as a female trailblazer in a male-dominated field is truly inspiring. The advice and guidance that she has offered me over these past few years have kept me afloat and strong as I continue to push through this phase in my medical career.  She is a jewel, not only to the aspiring female surgeons of tomorrow, but to all physicians everywhere. I was fortunate to sit down with her and discuss her journey to orthopaedics and the advice that she would give to women considering orthopaedics.

CO: What were some obstacles you faced at the beginning of your career and how did you deal with them?

LT: When I began, there were not many women going into medicine, let alone orthopaedic surgery. In high school I was told that “nice girls” do not become doctors. It was a very different time. I was very lucky. My mother knew I really wanted a medical career and was very supportive, even though a lot of other people were not.

CO: How do you maintain a voice in a male-dominated field?

LT: I focus on the things I am passionate about. I advocate for improved funding for musculoskeletal research. I believe that recognizing sex differences in musculoskeletal health is a quality of care issue. I have had the opportunity to be a strong voice for improving care for elderly persons with fragility fractures and, in my practice, I focus on the care of individuals with disabilities and rare skeletal disorders.

CO: What are some activities you participated in prior to training that you continued with during training?

LT: I gave up many things but gained others. I used to perform. I used to sail a lot. I was lucky that my mom retired to a town on the water so I still do a little boating each year. My husband loves to travel so when we take time off, we travel with our kids. It has been absolutely fantastic to experience other places and cultures with my family. And, I have really enjoyed being engaged in the field of orthopaedics. I was at the very first Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society meeting and value my continued membership – I enjoy being engaged within my profession.

CO: What advice would you give to female medical students interested in orthopaedic surgery?

LT: Many of the women and men who go into orthopaedic surgery played sports and discovered the field through their sports-related injuries. They arrive at medical school already knowing they are interested in the field. The challenge is to help the student who discovers orthopaedics later in training. If you even think you are interested in orthopaedics, it is critical to start building the record necessary to compete for an orthopaedic residency as early as possible. Get involved with research. Join an orthopaedic surgery interest group. Reach out to orthopaedic residents and attendings early. Develop relationships with individuals who can write a strong letter of recommendation. These are not things you can necessarily do at the end of your third year. The reality is, if you do not do these things early, you are unlikely to be a successful candidate.

CO: What drew you to orthopaedic surgery?

LT: It was quite a journey! I decided that I wanted to be a doctor in sixth grade. However, as I pointed out before, many people told me I could not do it. Happily, their “no” gave me more energy to pursue medicine. However, I did not have a lot of imagination. The books I read were about family practitioners in remote areas delivering babies and saving lives. I was absolutely certain that I, too, would be a family practitioner.  When I arrived at medical school, it never dawned on me to even think that I could be a surgeon. As a result, I actually spent two years in internal medicine training.  But I knew early on that this was not where I belonged.  I like to fix things, not talk about them.  It was my ER rotation that introduced me to Orthopaedics, and convinced me to switch. I feel lucky that I was in training when medicine was open to that kind of transition.

I did all my residency training at what was then called Columbia Presbyterian Hospital (and New York Orthopaedic Hospital) in New York. It was my good fortune that women had been serving in orthopaedics there for decades when I arrived.  Barbara Stimson, a general surgeon, had run the “Fracture Service” in the 1930’s and many of the older attendings had trained under her -- so “can women do it?” was never an issue. I was also lucky in that, at a time when most women had no mentors, there was a woman faculty member who did pediatric orthopaedic surgery, Roz Kane, who served as a fantastic role model both as a professional and as a mother.  And, as I noted above, I felt supported by the residents and the attendings, particularly David Roye, who continues to serve as a mentor to this day.

I feel very fortunate. Despite my early misstep into internal medicine, I found my niche. And, ironically the internal medicine training has helped me deal with the complexities of caring for individuals with disabilities and rare disorders.   I get to fix things – or, if I can’t fix them, make them a lot better. I feel very lucky that I found a profession that fits my personality.

CO: If you could change something about the trajectory that brought you to this point, what would it be?

LT: I can’t think of anything! My career trajectory has brought me to a far different place than I imagined in grade school. I am not doing a single thing that I thought I would do the day I entered medical school, except for public policy. I enjoy advocacy tremendously.

CO: What advice would you give to your medical student self, if you could go back in time?

LT: “Lighten up.” I was very serious. “Be open to ideas that are not part of your current world view.”

CO: What do you do for fun?

LT: I walk my dog. I am part of a dog walking community that I really enjoy. I go to the theatre whenever I can. I travel with my family and when I travel, I try to spend time sailing.

CO: What are some things that you would like to accomplish personally or professionally in the next five years?

LT: I would like to see my upstart Bone Health Clinic survive, grow, and thrive. I would like it to become an established part of the organizational chart here at Children’s Health System.

CO: In spite of your busy schedule, you still manage to mentor several students and make time for them. In your perspective why do you believe that is important?

LT: I believe the best thing I can do is to try to make sure that there are more people who care about the things I care about and care about them passionately.

Dr. Tosi is currently a practicing orthopaedic surgeon at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.  She has served on many boards and committees within the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and is a past president of the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society. She is interested in all aspects of bone health across all age groups and, as she would say, loves orthopaedic surgery to the Nth.