Honoring Women in Orthopaedics

The article was written by Nth Dimensions Scholar, Rolanda Willacy, an MS3 at the Howard University College of Medicine. 

Source: https://www.aaos.org/AAOSNow/2018/Jan/YourAAOS/youraaos05/?ssopc=1

Dinner recognizes pioneers, encourages students
On Oct. 28, 2017, I hosted the first annual Women in Orthopaedics Dinner in Washington, D.C. I conceived the event to celebrate women who have been groundbreakers in orthopaedic surgery. In addition to the notables who were honored, medical students from the Howard University College of Medicine, the Georgetown School of Medicine, and the University of Maryland were in attendance.

Among those who spoke were Claudia Thomas, MD; Laura L. Tosi, MD; Emily A. Hattwick, MD; Jasmine Bauknight, MD; Chika Okafor, MD; and Bonnie Simpson-Mason, MD. I set the stage by sharing the following statistics from the AAOS Now article, “Women in Orthopaedics: The Attraction is Mutual,” by Lisa K. Cannada, MD, and David D. Teuscher, MD (AAOS Now, August 2016):

  • In 2014, women made up 14 percent of orthopaedic residents, the lowest percentage among all surgical specialties.
  • From 2007 to 2015, the number of female residents increased from 67 to 105, representing a greater than 40 percent increase and demonstrating the great strides that have been made in improving diversity.

Dr. Thomas, the first female African-American orthopaedic surgeon in the United States and current president of the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society, gave the opening address. She shared the inspiring story of her early upbringing, including the time when she was in fourth grade and received a score of 99 percent on a mathematics exam. Her father, however, expressed his disappointment that she had not scored 100 percent, teaching her the importance and value of hard work from a very early age.


The speaker for the opening address, Claudia Thomas, MD, welcomes attendees. Dr. Thomas was the first female African-American orthopaedic surgeon in the United States and is the president of the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society. 
Courtesy of Damion Willacy


During her opening address, Dr. Thomas shared her perseverance in pursuing this field and becoming the first female African-American orthopaedic surgeon in the United States following her graduation from the Yale Orthopaedic Surgery Residency program in 1980.

However, her greatest achievement, she said, was overcoming obstacles of health. In 1990, she learned that she had cancer in both kidneys, which required their removal and began a lifetime of dialysis for her. During this challenging period, Dr. Thomas started to write her autobiography, God Spare Life, which was published in 2007. This book shares her spiritual formula for success, survival, and serenity.

Drs. Tosi and Hattwick, both from the Children’s National Medical Center, joined Howard University residents Drs. Bauknight and Okafor for a panel discussion on their experiences as female orthopaedic surgeons.

Dr. Tosi recalled that she had initially started her residency in internal medicine before realizing it was not the path for her. She was drawn to orthopaedic surgery because it enabled her to use her hands. Dr. Tosi also shared the strides in diversity that have been made and that she has seen, both as a founding member and a past president of the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society. The Society is very active in recruiting and identifying women in the specialty.


Students listen attentively to the keynote speaker Dr. Bonnie Simpson-Mason, founder and executive director of Nth Dimensions. 
Courtesy of Damion Willacy

Overcoming preconceptions about what an orthopaedic surgeon looks like was one of the obstacles faced by Drs. Bauknight and Okafor. Both had often been confused with other valuable healthcare professionals. However, the Howard University Hospital residency program has done an incredible job with increasing diversity in orthopaedics.

Dr. Hattwick shared her personal experience of giving birth to twins and the support she received from her partners during this important milestone. She advised audience members (particularly women) to ask for what they deserve in professional settings, and to remember that having children is a short period in the long tenure of one’s career. Dr. Hattwick also encouraged students to love what they do and to provide the best quality of care to patients, despite any obstacles that they might face along their journey.

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As the keynote speaker, Dr. Simpson-Mason, founder and executive director of Nth Dimensions, shared a question asked by her son, who was 8 years old at the time: “Why do birds fly in a V-shaped formation?” After some research, Dr. Simpson-Mason learned, “migrating birds not only fly in a V-formation because they are going in the same direction, but it actually is an energy-conservation move, in which the aerodynamics of their wings flapping create a path that makes it easier for the birds behind to fly through.” In other words, this formation enables the entire flock to fly further, which is the true impact of teamwork.

Dr. Simpson-Mason stressed the need for reflection, responsiveness, and reciprocity. She noted the connections among the orthopaedic surgeons present and recalled Dr. Thomas’ willingness to become her mentor after they were introduced in 1993. She also recounted the impact that Dr. Tosi had on her, as the attending surgeon during her pediatric orthopaedic rotation at Children’s National Medical Center. Dr. Simpson-Mason used these experiences to show how the story of the lead bird parallels the progress made in orthopaedics. She stated that the path “is contingent on the lead birds” and “has been paved for us because of the people sitting in this room.”

The event gave students the opportunity to network, to speak with the residents and physicians in attendance, and to share their experiences with each other. It also encouraged participation in programs such as the Nth Dimensions Orthopaedic Summer Internship as well as other great research and shadowing opportunities.

I heartily encourage my colleagues—both male and female—to continue to have these important conversations in their communities. It is yet another way to reach out to women and minorities and to open their eyes to the wonderful field that is orthopaedic surgery.

Rolanda Willacy is currently an MS3 at the Howard University College of Medicine and is the co-president of the Howard Orthopaedic Surgery Interest Society.


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