“I hope you’re not serious about doing something in medicine.”
These words are all too familiar to Annete Bongiwe Moyo, a senior medical student at the University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences in Harare, Zimbabwe, and a former Stanford visiting scholar. In Zimbabwe, where the proportion of men to women in medical school is roughly 3:1, women are encouraged to take up professions as teachers, artists, caregivers – not doctors. And for a woman thinking about becoming a surgeon, well, she might as well keep dreaming.
Though the odds were stacked against her, Moyo made the decision to become a doctor at a very young age. But it wasn’t until she met Stanford surgeon Sherry Wren, MD, that she started to believe that becoming a surgeon was a realistic goal.
The outlook for women in surgery in Zimbabwe is not terribly unlike that in the U.S. when Wren began her residency at Yale University almost 30 years ago. After receiving her medical degree from Loyola University, Wren became the first woman from the university to specialize in surgery. At that time, only 12 percent of surgical residents were women, and the number of women surgeons in the workforce was far less.
But Wren has never let her womanhood hold her back. In fact, her powerhouse personality, fearlessness and passion for her work are the very traits that define her. She has worked all over the world, applying her skill and resourcefulness to provide the best possible care, often with extremely limited resources in remote locations. In many of these places, Wren is often the first woman surgeon anyone has ever seen.
Shocked too was Moyo when Wren appeared on her surgery rotation at the University of Zimbabwe two years ago. Here’s how Moyo recalls their first encounter - one that would have a lasting impact:
[Wren] was a visiting professor in a grand rounds. Medical students are not usually invited to grand rounds, but that day, we were permitted to attend. When the presentation was done, she asked a question, and when she looked my way, she could tell I knew the answer. She called on me, but one of my professors said ‘Wait, she’s a third year student, she may not know what you’re talking about.’ But Prof. Wren insisted, and I answered correctly. So she asked another question, and I got it right. And then another, and I got it right again.
The mood had shifted in the room. No one expected a junior female medical student could be capable of such an eloquent response. No one had ever given her the chance.
The two met again a few months later when Wren was in town for a medical conference. She recognized Moyo right away. When they got to talking, Moyo realized her challenges were not so different from those Wren faced when she began her training.
“Here was a woman who grew up in totally different circumstances from mine, but had similar aspirations as me. She had to fight similar battles to be able to encourage many more women to express interest in surgery and empower them to actually build careers in surgery,” said Moyo.
Since meeting Wren, Moyo founded D.R.E.A.M., a word that represents the organization’s mission - Dedicated to Reach, Empower And Mentor women in surgery.
Wren opened up the first meeting of the “DREAM girls” last year and remains an active mentor. She’ll be traveling back to Harare to give trainings and lectures with DREAM next month and continues to be a symbol of inspiration, a reminder that the dream of becoming a female surgeon is within reach for many.
Rachel Leslie is the communications officer at Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health.
Previously: Sherry Wren, MD – a surgeon's road home, One physician's take on the lack of female doctors in leadership roles, Why are female physicians paid less than male ones? and Doc McStuffins: A pint-sized inspiration for girls of all colors
Photo, of Moyo (far left), Wren (center) and several "DREAM girls" at a dinner in Tanzania, courtesy of Wren