Womaneer: Meet the Heart Surgeon Challenging Gender Stereotypes Every Single Day

Nicole Singh

Introducing: Womaneer, our new series that highlights and celebrates the oft–overlooked women of our day who are making waves in the fields of politics, crypto-currency, not-for-profit, and design. Each of these women have something in common: vision, grit, and a heavy dose of persistence that keeps them going despite the odds.

These women are proof that the gender gap is closing… that is, if you fight for it. With some guts, you can become the next pioneering voice in your field—a Womaneer. We’ve heard from ballerina, Leanne Stojmenov, and now for the next Womaneer in our series, we broaden our scope to cardiothoracic surgeon and author, Dr. Nikki Stamp.

Combining discipline, long hours and an incomprehensible amount of study, Stamp has used her career and growing platform to not only pen the book Can You Die of a Broken Heart?, but also to promote other women in the hopes of finally achieving gender equality within the medical sphere. From her greatest achievement to date, to the myth of "having it all", this is what being a surgeon really looks like.

I’m a cardiothoracic surgeon, which means I spend my days operating on people who have illness of the heart or lungs. It’s a long training process, and for most specialists in Australia, it takes around 10 years of training after you finish medical school and graduate as a doctor to gain the skills necessary for your career. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, with long hours, a lot of sacrifice personally, financially and from those around you which is one of the reasons I know I love what I do because you can’t go through that tough time unless you really want to turn up every day and do your job. 

The nature of my job means that challenges are not small. Whether it be clinical challenges or challenges related to the nuts and bolts of my career, they do tend to be big. The training program for cardiothoracic surgery is a long, hard slog and a huge challenge that plays out over many years. There were certainly times  when I felt an incredible amount of pressure. Things like moving around the country to get further training, long hours, and lack of sleep make things really tough sometimes. At the end of it all, we do an exam as a final hurdle to qualify as a specialist and that was such a massive undertaking. But the day that I passed that exam was one of the best days of my life and I am so pleased to have been able to rise to that challenge. 

There really isn’t a typical work day. We never really know what’s going to roll through the door any given day, so sometimes things get quite unpredictable. Most days start around 7 a.m. and finish around 6 p.m. (on a good day). On operating days, I would normally do two or three surgeries in a day and they take around three or four hours each. Some days can be much more chaotic and adrenaline-filled and I work with such a great team and we’re really used to rolling with the punches and getting the job done. 

I am, just by nature, pretty determined. I think that once I have a goal in mind, I can’t really rest until I’ve met that goal. I’ve been very fortunate to have the support of a number of people who help me believe in myself because they do. I also know that they act as a kind of ‘soft landing’ if things don’t go according to plan and it’s a huge confidence boost to have supporters in your life.

I think aside from my own stubbornness, I was very fortunate to have mentors and teachers who were sensitive to the biases that women can experience in any workplace, but especially in ours. They have really fostered the careers of several women surgeons, which is a stand out in surgery. In more recent years, social media has allowed me to connect with women surgeons from around the world, following the #ILookLikeASurgeon movement and that friendship, collegiality, and sometimes mentorship from other women surgeons has really given me a network of like-minded and very passionate people to not only share experiences with, but actually make a contribution to improving gender bias. 

I think that younger women who wish to pursue surgery are being given more opportunity and that’s something we see reflected in slow, but definite increases of women doing surgery. This is really encouraging, however, there is still much to be done as unconscious bias still exists, for all of us, in society. There are still a number of stand-out issues that we can’t rest on yet such as sexual harassment, issues related to parenting, gender pay gaps and differences in a woman’s career versus a man’s (such as appointment to senior roles, leadership roles or academic roles) that point to a persistent gender bias.

I still think the day I passed my specialist exams and qualified as a specialist surgeon rates as one of the biggest days in my life. I was holding an envelope in my hands with the details that I passed and honestly, I cried so much that my friends and colleagues thought I’d failed! But I was just ecstatic. To get to the end of more than a decade of work is such an incredible feeling and I’m very proud. I also rate very highly the day I first held my book in my hands, which was overwhelming. It was amazing to see all that work finally materialise. It’s also surreal to see my name on the front of a book, but I love that I’m still a little bit dorky getting excited about that!

I have to say, I don’t consider myself some sort of all-knowing authority. Obviously, I have a very special and specific training that affords me a level of expertise in medicine, but the fact that I get to say that to people is an incredible privilege. For me, being able to get messages out about issues that I am very passionate about—such as heart health, women’s health or gender equality—is just important to me and being able to authentically deliver that message is a core value for me. When I stop feeling that authenticity, well then, I think any authority I do have is challenged. 

Can You Die of a Broken Heart? by Nikki Stamp ($24)

Wanting to learn more about the heart? Stamp explains why she wrote the book and what you can learn:  "Can You Die of a Broken Heart? essentially explores the heart: How it gets sick, how to keep it healthy, how it works, all in a holistic, approachable manner. It’s not a diet book or lifestyle program, rather I wanted to show people just how interesting and amazing our insides are and I hope that motivates them to take care of themselves."

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