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Celebrating Women in Surgery: Dr Maija Cheung

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Dr Maija Cheung is KidsOR Global Lead for Surgery and an Assistant Professor in Surgery in the Division of Bariatrics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut.

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? 

In the last decade especially, Yale has made incredible strides in prioritizing recruiting and supporting those demographics that historically have been underrepresented in medicine. Our surgical residency classes have been approximately 50% women. 

A persistent gender gap remains among leadership positions in US academic surgical departments; in the US only 28 of 354 chairs of academic surgical departments are women however Yale is incredibly lucky to be one of those departments leading the way with a female surgical Chair of Surgery.
What are some of the challenges, if any, you’ve experienced as a female surgeon?   

Unfortunately female physicians in general and surgeons even more so, contend with both unintended as well as overt biases and challenges. Examples in our field abound from patients mistaking female physicians for their nurses to other physicians treating female providers differently from their male counterparts in everything from hiring to salary to mentorship. 

It’s important that we as a medical field commit to culture shifts, provide counter-stereotypic exposure and continue to encourage mentorship and sponsorship of female providers in order to eradicate bias, decrease burnout and increase career satisfaction.

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

1. Always stay curious and let that curiosity guide you in the path you choose and the experiences you have. 

2. Don’t let people tell you what is, or isn’t possible, or pass judgment on what you value in your career and in your own life. 

3. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, your career just changes. So the more you can love the journey, the more you will love what you do.

What motivates you to keep on working in your field? 

I am motivated by most by my patients and the impact our field has on the global community. There is a unique bond formed between a patient and their surgeon that is based on the trust you develop in a short period of time, often when someone is at their most vulnerable. It’s incredibly gratifying to help improve, cure, and occasionally even save a patient’s life. 

It truly is a priviledge to care for patients in this way and that is something I have always tried to impart on our trainees. The global surgical burden of disease is underappreciated by many which is why my work at KidsOR helping create global surgical capacity, increase training opportunities, and advocate for health systems strenghtening is also a major motivation to continue my clinical and academic work and is something that helps balance and sustain me.

Do you have a female role model in your field?   

I am incredibly lucky not only to be in a female-led department of surgery currently but to have had amazing female mentors and role models throughout my training from my co-residents to faculty members. One of my role models was an incredible talented breast surgeon who was technically excellent, a wonderful teacher, and was beloved by her patients and by all those she worked with. She recently retired but she left behind generations of surgeons, both male and female, who aspire to channel her approach to medicine in our own practices.

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