Feature: The same vertical line

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

Colon: (organ) the final section of the digestive tract; (punctuation) a punctuation mark consisting of two equally sized dots centred on the same vertical line.

Colon tattoo on wristsTwo small dots hold a lot of meaning for general surgery residents Drs. Ally Istl, Martina Mudri, Elaine Tang and Lucy Yang.

Permanently inked on their wrists, the colon (of the punctuation variety) represents their special bond as co-residents, as well as the surgical specialty they’ve dedicated their careers to.

“We wanted to get a small, subtle tattoo together, and the colon had this perfect ‘play on words’ for us,” explained Dr. Tang.

The fifth-year residents will be the Division of General Surgery’s first all-female graduating year this spring.

Being women in a traditionally male profession isn’t something the group chooses to dwell on, although persistent stereotypes about surgery – that it is a demanding career and doesn’t allow for a family-oriented lifestyle – did impact some of them. A 2019 study in JAMA Network Open found that health care professionals and surgeons more strongly associate men with careers in surgery and women with family medicine.

“I had some guilt as I was making the decision in medical school – that I was going to pursue this very consuming career. It felt like I was putting family life on the backburner in some ways,” said Dr. Tang. “But I’ve done everything I wanted to do during residency and I’ve started my family.”

Listening to her friend’s experience, Dr. Istl points to the importance of a parent who sets an example. “Growing up with a parent like Elaine, her daughter now has this incredible, hard-working role model of a surgeon mother,” she said.

Dr. Mudri advises aspiring female surgeons to tune out the naysayers. “Don’t listen to those people who say you can’t do it,” she said. “Because you can.”

From clinical experiences to conference travels to family gatherings, the four co-residents have grown to be more than just peers. “Our relationship is very unique,” said Dr. Istl. “It’s a family like no other, we’ve really gone through the trenches together.”

Since July 2015, the group has celebrated some of life’s biggest milestones. “Ally was actually the first person to know I was pregnant,” said Dr. Tang with a laugh. “She covered my shift so I could go home and tell my husband.”

“And we celebrated my daughter’s first birthday at Lucy’s house,” she added.

As a specialty, the group agrees that general surgery offers a broad foundation, with skills to manage anything that comes through the door. “Surgery is often a life-changing experience for our patients,” said Dr. Yang. “There’s a huge amount of influence and responsibility that comes with that.”

The General Surgery program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry offered a supportive environment. “We’re lucky to have male and female mentors who not only provide us with mentorship, but promoted us as well,” said Dr. Istl. “They have advocated for us and promoted us as strong surgeons in the specialty and among academic circles.”

With graduation in sight, the senior residents are now focusing on their upcoming board exams. All four will be completing a fellowship program following their residency: Dr. Istl at Johns Hopkins for surgical oncology; Dr. Mudri at the University of British Columbia for paediatric general surgery; Dr. Tang at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry to complete critical care medicine; and Dr. Yang at the University of Toronto for colorectal surgery.

“I’m very proud of us,” said Dr. Mudri. “Sometimes I still pinch myself. This was a dream of mine for so long and it’s coming true.”

“By happenstance, we ended up here together and we’re so lucky to have each other,” said Dr. Istl. “I’m very grateful for these three strong women in my life.”