Professor Farah Bhatti is a Consultant Cardiothoracic Surgeon and Chair of Women in Surgery forum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. She was accepted to read Medicine at Somerville College, Oxford and gained a B.A.(Hons) in Physiological Sciences, specialising in heart related topics. Farah continued her clinical training at the University of Cambridge, where she discovered her love for surgery and spent an elective period at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston.
“…We need to make sure that no one who has the inclination, skills and aptitude is hindered from pursuing what is an ultimately rewarding and fulfilling career…”
The eureka moment!
From an early age I wanted to be doctor and later, whilst an undergraduate at medical school – Somerville College Oxford, I was fascinated by the intricacy of how the heart worked. It was when I first stepped into an operating theatre as a clinical student in Cambridge that I had a eureka moment – it felt like home – I decided there and then that I would be a cardiac surgeon!
Planning the route to a dream career
After qualifying I did a number of surgical related jobs including orthopaedics, accident and emergency as well as general surgery and gained my FRCS [Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons] in 1994. After that I went to work in a number of prestigious units in order to gain further exposure to cardiothoracic surgery. This included the Royal Brompton Hospital as well as Harefield Hospital.
I spent a period of full time research back at the University of Cambridge and gained an M.D. in Transplantation. Following this I completed my formal training in cardiothoracic surgery in the North West region and was appointed a consultant surgeon ten years ago, on 2nd November 2007.
I think once I had decided to become a doctor and then a cardiac surgeon, I was reasonably focussed and ensured that all my jobs and academic pursuits would lead to the end game which was becoming a cardiac surgeon. Although there have been ups and downs on the way, I never doubted that it was possible to reach my goal.
Proud and privileged
The best bit of the ‘job’ is performing heart surgery on patients with debilitating symptoms and getting them back to their families. I never failed to be awed when I hold a patient’s heart in my hand – what a privilege.
I also spend time teaching and training medical students and training surgeons. At a national level, I am involved in national selection of junior surgeons into the cardiothoracic training process in the UK as well as being an examiner for the final cardiothoracic exams that senior trainees take prior to being eligible to become a consultant surgeon.
I feel really proud that I am able to contribute to maintaining standards in our specialty at a national level as well as serving my patients at a local level.
No two days are the same
My day can be very varied depending on whether I have theatre lists scheduled or not. On an operating day it’s a very well-rehearsed routine. The patients will have been seen by me and my team, and prepared for surgery the day before. The theatre team will meet at 07.45 to do a theatre team brief so that we can go through the operations listed, check that the whole team is prepared and no unexpected problems are anticipated.
Although responsibility lies with the consultant surgeon for the actual surgery, a big team is involved in ensuring that things run smoothly as cardiac surgery is a complex procedure.
I will then do a quick ward round on my patients while the first patient is being prepared for surgery. I will have my breakfast and focus on the procedure ahead. At lunch time it is usually a quick turn-around between operations – there is no formal break for lunch, but I will always try and get myself a coffee before the next case starts.
The days can be long – it is not a 9 to 5 job and the operations last as long as they last because every case is unique. I ensure my patients are stable on intensive care before I leave for home. That evening and in fact any evening, if a patient of mine is unstable or unwell I will be called first to give my opinion and I will come into the hospital if needed. This is a huge responsibility and one which I take extremely seriously, after all these are life and death matters.
Work is not only in scrubs
Other days can be varied and involve assessing patients before surgery in the outpatient’s clinic or reviewing postoperative patients.
In addition, I spend one morning a week at Swansea University Medical School, where I am involved in their Graduate Entry Medicine (GEM) course. I began my relationship with GEM by teaching, I worked initially as a curriculum director and now my role is careers lead, as well as director of equality and diversity. This is a natural fit for me as I have a passion for teaching and training. I enjoy sharing tips for careers and exposing students to different specialties that they may not have considered.
I am a patron of the Swansea Equality in Medicine Society as well as the Swansea Women in Surgery Society – both student-led bodies which organise themed talks and promote and embrace diversity by showcasing career options.
I also enjoy working with colleagues in STEMM subjects at Swansea University. I have been a speaker at Soapbox Science and I am extremely proud that Swansea University has recently been awarded an Athena SWAN Silver award.
Promoting the role of women in surgery
The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a special place for me because I associate the building and institution with gaining my FRCS. I have served on their Opportunities in Surgery Committee, which looked at all aspects of promoting surgical careers information and supporting medical students, trainee surgeons and women in surgery.
Over the last few years I have become increasingly aware of the need, and in fact my duty, to encourage others who may wish to pursue a career in surgery but are put off by other people’s negative perceptions and attitudes, stereotypes, or lack of support. We need to make sure that no one who has the inclination, skills and aptitude is hindered from pursuing what is an ultimately rewarding and fulfilling career.
I decided it was time to step up to the plate, so I applied for and was appointed to the role of chair of the Women in Surgery forum (WinS) at The Royal College of Surgeons of England in September 2016. The mission statement of WinS is to encourage, enable and inspire women to fulfil their surgical potential.
Our work includes liaising with relevant bodies to highlight issues affecting female surgeons, organising regular events to promote women in surgery, conducting research and ensuring visible role models are present. Our WinS network has over 5000 members from all over the UK, and at all career stages.
Being a surgeon and a woman are not mutually exclusive!
Currently, approximately 12% of consultant surgeons in the UK are women. This is a great improvement on figures from 1991 which revealed it was at 3%. The percentage of women in the ten different surgical specialties varies widely, with paediatric surgery (a small specialty) having almost 26% of its consultant posts being filled by women, down to specialties such as orthopaedics and cardiothoracic surgery where the percentage is nearer 6%. It’s unclear why there is this variation.
Reassuringly about 40% of trainees in surgery are women and there is a lot more visibility of female surgeons both during medical school and early training years, which I think has helped to reinforce that it is perfectly possible to be a surgeon and be a woman – the two are not mutually exclusive!
Managing the pressures of a demanding career
Clearly a surgical career is an onerous undertaking with both time commitments and pressures that come with being responsible for other people’s lives. There are times during your career when you have to focus on both working in a high pressure, time critical environment as well as studying for graduate exams and clearly that can limit time for other pursuits.
Surgery however is no different from any other career where sacrifices (or rather choices) have to be made in order to succeed. In my opinion what you do need is some sort of support structure, whether that be partners, friends, family or someone else. In addition, there is no reason why you cannot continue to pursue your sporting, musical or social interests… I think with good organisation and support a reasonable balance can be achieved.
I have to confess that I am rather boring in the weekdays and value my sleep, as my specialty involves long hours at the operating table – however that doesn’t stop me making the most of my time off. I love travelling and have spent time exploring Central and South America, as well as South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
The social and geographical possibilities of Twitter
I am relatively new to Twitter having been using it for about two years. I choose to focus on positive stories across medicine, science and technology as well as highlighting opportunities such as training opportunities.
Recently I have been involved in the #ILookLikeASurgeon campaign that Heather Logghe started. In fact, I used Twitter to contact Heather who then delivered a video message to the Association of Surgeons in Training 2016 meeting from across the Atlantic – that wouldn’t have been possible without Twitter.
It’s amazing the reach you have with Twitter, I posed with some colleagues for the #NYerORCoverchallenge and remember getting a response from South Africa from a medical student saying she was inspired to carry on studying after seeing our image – heart-warming proof that these campaigns have such a far reaching, global impact.
Find out more, engage in events and keep going – the rewards are worth it!
My advice for girls and women who are interested in surgical is to find out as much as you can about the surgical profession. The Royal College of Surgeons has a lot of literature available, free of charge. School children can visit the Royal College of Surgeons website and look up information relating to careers in surgery.
Once at medical school, engage with the events organised by the surgical societies and discuss your career ambitions with the surgeons around you. My strong message is that it is perfectly possible to be a surgeon and a woman and that you mustn’t be put off before you have even started.
Surgery is not easy and it is hard work but the rewards are immense. You do have to be dedicated and committed but that’s the same for any career worth having.
Looking forward – equality and international collaborations
I have now been a consultant for ten years and I still enjoy what I do. Patient care and passing on my surgical experience to my junior colleagues are aspects of the job I find particularly fulfilling.
As for the university, I am currently leading Swansea University’s work towards gaining the Race Charter Mark from the Equality Challenge Unit.
With the Royal College of Surgeons, I have already got a packed schedule for next year and I have begun to engage with the surgical specialty associations to try and embed support for women surgeons across the board. I am looking forward to international collaborations and then handing the mantle to my successor.
It will be great when there comes a time when being a woman as well as a surgeon is a non-issue but we still have some way to go!
Heart GIF image credit: By Jebulon – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57065825