Dr. Bajaj Speaks with Project3One Breast Cancer Survivors
The following is a talk that I gave at a luncheon honoring breast cancer survivors sponsored by Project3One – a local organization started by one of my patients to help women dealing with breast cancer. The mission of Project3One is to embrace, equip, and empower women as they deal with this diagnosis.
When Sarah asked me to speak several months ago, I asked her what she wanted me to discuss. She said that she hoped that I would be able to give an inspiring talk about my motivation to become a reconstructive surgeon. At the time, I thought, “What could be easier?” But as I started to prepare this talk, I realized how difficult a topic it really is. During the past six months, my work life has gone through many changes – new office location, new employees, new partners, etc. While many things have changed on the surface, my initial motivation to become a plastic surgeon has not changed – though the inspiration for doing what I do every day has evolved.
Despite being the daughter of a plastic surgeon, I had not always wanted to be a physician or a surgeon. I first became interested in surgery as a child after reading an article in Readers Digest about a female plastic surgeon, Elizabeth Morgan, MD. She wrote a book called, “The Making of a Woman Surgeon” about her experiences as a female surgery resident; but she is probably better known for a bitter child custody battle during which she was imprisoned and fled the country. When I read about her experiences as a female resident in a male-dominated specialty, it made me want to follow in her footsteps — I wanted to pick a challenge, and prove myself. Being a female surgeon seemed like it would be a good challenge.
By the time I graduated from college, I had decided that I would not become a surgeon. I had initially wanted to become a writer and an artist, but my father had informed me that he wouldn’t pay for school if I chose one of those paths. So, as I started medical school, I decided that I would pursue a career in Women’s Health. I went to medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, which was and still is one of the only institutions in the country to have a residency program focused on women’s health. However, in my third year of medical school, I discovered a passion that I just had to follow.
As I said, at that time, I had resolved that I would not be a surgeon – I didn’t want the lifestyle, neither did my husband at the time. But during my surgery rotation, I discovered that I loved the high stress, decisive action, and ability to solve problems with your hands — all of which are critical aspects of surgery. The daily grind of intellectually analyzing patient problems or hours of conversation weren’t for me; but the rapid thrill of the operating room was.
Unfortunately, I discovered that many surgeries involved removing things – removing an appendix, a gallbladder, or a tumor. In Plastic surgery, I discovered the opportunity to actually fill the hole and use my creativity – no two operations are ever exactly the same. I remember observing a surgery in which a large tumor was removed from a man – with the removal of this tumor, he lost the entire lower half of his face. The surgical residents were ecstatic about the resection and the large defect, but it was the plastic surgeons who rebuilt his jaw and his face that left me awestruck.
I chose to pursue a career in plastic surgery despite the objections of many of those around me. My father told me, “surgery is not a good specialty for women, consider ophthalmology.” My husband at the time advised me that he did not want to be married to a surgeon. The chairman of the Division of Plastic Surgery at the time also informed me that “plastic surgery is a boys club”.
While in medical school, I worked with a plastic surgeon in Pittsburgh. And he didn’t laugh at my ambitions, but encouraged me instead. After completing medical school, I received a plastic surgery residency position and moved to Southern California. Following residency, I wanted to pursue fellowship training. I had always known that I wanted to focus on cancer reconstruction – after all, in medical school, it was the thrill and challenge of filling a big hole which had led me to pursue plastic surgery. But now I wanted to do microsurgery – sewing on tiny (1-2mm) blood vessels. When I was considering my options, my department chairman very simply told me “follow your passion.” So I did. The best place for this training was MD Anderson, and so I went.
As a plastic surgery resident, I had assisted and performed many reconstructive procedures on many women for breast reconstruction – TRAM flaps, latissimus flaps – all flaps that resulted in a significant functional sacrifice for these women. I had always thought to myself, “this is a long haul just to make a boob.” I had heard many stories of women who were unable to sit up because of the loss of the abdominal muscles from a TRAM flap or had a hard time playing tennis or golf, etc. As I pursued my fellowship in microsurgery, I learned other options that were able that spared the muscle instead. And now these procedures are a critical component of my reconstructive practice.
Today, I’m in practice in Oklahoma City and have been here since 2007. I joined my father, who has been a practicing plastic surgeon here for over 35 years. Despite initially discouraging me from a surgical career, I believe that he is proud of what I have accomplished. My initial focus as a reconstructive surgeon was on head and neck reconstruction after cancer. During the past 7 years, since returning to OKC, I have focused on breast reconstruction after cancer. I have followed my passion, and I love what I do – I operate on all parts of the body and help rebuild it in different ways.
Yesterday, in my clinic, I saw many patients – the woman who was so amazed at her reconstruction that she couldn’t stop admiring herself in the mirror, the young girl who said that liposuction changed her life and gave her more confidence, the former