A Woman In Orthopaedics

December 11, 2019

“You are so small built – are you sure you have the strength to do the surgery?” This question has been posed to me countless times, by patients, colleagues from other disciplines and sometimes even colleagues from the same discipline. The more vocal ones would openly ask this question and the less vocal would probably do so in their heads.

My journey in orthopaedics has been a tough one, to say the least. However, overcoming great challenges brings great satisfaction. I have learnt that technique and knowledge are more important than strength. I have learnt the value of teamwork. I have learnt that changing mindsets is a slow and long process.

I do not deny that I do get sore arms and backaches after operating on big patients. During my fellowship, I performed a knee arthroscopy on a six-foot-tall Caucasian male who
weighed more than 100 kg. One of the things the surgeon needs to do during a knee scope is to support the patient’s leg on his/her hips to open up the medial joint space. I did get the help of a male colleague to hold the leg up and apply a valgus force. I performed the knee scope successfully and the patient was delighted after the surgery. I helped my colleague by being his assistant in other cases; we made such a great team that our fellowship boss left us to handle most of the cases, which meant great learning opportunities for us both!

It is hard work for sure, physically and mentally, but orthopaedics is such a rapidly expanding field with new exciting technology and techniques emerging year after year. I never get tired of it. I have great support from my family and my spouse (who is also an orthopaedic surgeon), and that certainly helps. Things became more challenging after I gave birth to my son three years ago. (Side note: to allay the fears of radiation in orthopaedics, he was a very healthy baby). There is just less time for everything. However, I learnt to be more efficient, work with less sleep and also to not be shy in asking for help when needed. My bonds with our extended family strengthened with this new challenge of caring for my son.

I think that in Singapore, compared to other countries, women are given pretty much equal opportunities and I am thankful for that. Thus, I would say that the traditional boundaries and barriers to women practising orthopaedics have been softening over the years. I have great respect for senior women orthopaedists Dr Ang Swee Chai and Dr Kanwaljit Soin, whom I think were the true forerunners of “women in orthopaedics”. My hopes for orthopaedics in Singapore is that it will continue to embrace gender diversity, and that women doctors who are interested in the subject matter will not be put off by traditional misconceptions about the specialty.

This article is first published in Singapore Medical Association (SMA)