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Celebrating Women in Surgery: Dr Lubna Tarmahomed

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Dr Lubna Tarmahomed is a KidsOR Paediatric surgical trainee at The Mercy James Centre for Paediatric Surgery and Intensive Care in Malawi, where she is currently training to become a paediatric surgeon. To celebrate International Women's Day 2022, we profiled remarkable women in surgery who are an inspiration, who break barriers, and who are at the top of their field. 

Women are extremely underrepresented in surgery and anaesthesia departments across the globe. How many women do you usually work with in your unit/department? 

The department where I work currently has 11 resident female surgeons and 7 consultant female surgeons, in contrast with 16 and 12 male counterparts respectively across the specialities. This is the highest number of female staff our department has ever had before, and with each year, the number of female residents is increasing. 

In paediatric surgery, for instance, for the longest time, there were only 2 female consultants, but currently, there are 3 consultants and 4 paediatric surgical residents in training. This change has been facilitated by organisations like KidsOR that have stepped up to encourage and support the training of female surgeons. In the long-term, the hope is to have equal numbers of both genders. Females have always dominated in the nursing field, however, there has also been an increase in the number of male theatre nurses lately, which is great!

What are some of the challenges, if any, you’ve experienced as a female surgeon?   

To be honest, there haven’t been many gender-related struggles. With the changes happening in the world around us, and the transition from the surgical field being previously male-dominated to a steady increase in the number of female surgeons and surgical trainees, it has slowly become more accommodating to both genders.

From my personal experience, during my first few days as a trainee, my fellow female peers were very receptive and welcoming and unknowingly stepped into the role of being mentors. There is an association called Women in Surgery Africa (WISA) and although there isn’t an official forum in my country, during my first few days, a few of my friends and I were given a small handbook that served as a pocket mentor, specifically aimed at guiding female residents with regards to how to handle oneself as a resident as well as how to tackle common problems brought about during the training. It has been very useful and a great initiative by WISA as it has simple things that one can often overlook such as a locker list, and basics of self-care or how to maintain relationships outside the work environment despite having a busy life. 

It takes into consideration real-life situations and outlines some ways to tackle the issues. It is a book that has been compiled for women, by women that have walked the same path, and the aim is to make the path a slightly easier walk for future generations by helping them equip themselves with the needful skills. 

As female residents, we have formed a support group and make sure we take time to go out and unwind after a busy week where feasible, and support and help each other as far as we can from both an academic and social perspective. 

A challenge I have had, although not necessarily directly related to being a female surgeon has been cultural acceptance of being a working woman. I come from Asian heritage and as many people would know, a woman is expected to get married and start a family. It is not very common to have independent working women or career women who prioritise their education and careers before building a family. For me, it wasn’t any different, and despite having great cheerleaders in my life, there are still a few people who shun me and others like me for having chosen a path of life that is beyond the norm. My advice to all the ladies out there would be to turn a deaf ear and do what makes you happy! Who says you can’t have it all?

What advice would you give to your younger self when you started your medical career/ studies?  

A little hard work and dedication goes a long way. Once you set your heart to something, pave the way to achieve your goals and most importantly believe in yourself and eventually, you will live your dream!

What motivates you to keep on working in your field?

For me, it’s the beautiful innocent smiles of my little humans that bring warmth to my heart and a smile on my face, even on a bad day. Knowing that every little effort you make, will have a great impact on the lives of these children and their families, and seeing a child who came in sick, going home cheerful and playful again is the fruit of our effort.

Do you have a female role model in your field?   

My role model also happens to be my self identified mentor Dr Lucy Kaomba. She is a General Surgeon who works in the same department at my training institution. To me, not only has she been a mentor and teacher, but she also steps into the role of a friend/confidante where need be. She has not only shared her personal experiences but has given me a lot of guidance concerning the residency program and continues to do so. She fosters growth in me not only in my career as a surgeon but also as woman and continues to challenge me and help me grow as a surgeon. 

What I admire most about her is her ability to balance her work life and her life at home. It is never easy and it will never be, but she has mastered the art of being a great surgeon and an amazing mother at the same time. I hope that one day, I will be able to do the same.

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