To celebrate XX in Healthcare Week,  we are publishing a series of articles by or about women in healthcare.   Sara Teicholtz, the author of this post, is a second year medical student who has just returned from her “dream trip” to Nepal where she learned first hand about health care in that country.  Thanks, Sara, for another great post.  (Please scroll to the bottom to view the  XX in Health video.)

by Sara Teicholtz

Dr. Samira Khan is a busy woman. The last line of her reply to my recent e mail reads, “dear, I have to go now, will answer rest question in next mail, got to go urgent. take care.” A sentence very illustrative of Samira’s character—her calm, nurturing nature coming across over e mail even as she was preparing to take care of what was most likely an emergency medical situation in the Nepalese community hospital where we had met her. It makes me realize how infrequently I type out “dear,” in any e mail, even when not rushing off to take care of an emergency.

It’s not surprising that she is able to show such grace under pressure—she’s used to balancing quite a lot these days. She’s a practicing OB/Gyn at the Manmohan Memorial Hospital in Kathmandu, seeing women in the outpatient department and performing gynecological surgeries—both planned and emergencies. On top of this, she’s also serving as the acting director of the hospital, a position she plans to hold until she takes over as head of OB/Gyn at the teaching hospital being built as part of a newly forming medical college. On top of all of this, she finds time to spend with her daughter, son, and her husband, who as an orthopedic surgeon is also a little short on spare time.
Samira met us our first day at the Manmohan Memorial Hospital. After making sure we had tea, she gave us an introduction to the hospital. She speaks English like someone who has lived in America for years—throwing in an occasional, “you know?” to make sure we’re following. We have no trouble following her. She’s a phenomenal teacher, and we spend the next week competing amongst ourselves to shadow her. I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with her for a few minutes one afternoon and ask her about how being female had impacted her experiences in medicine.

Samira had wanted to be a doctor ever since she was a child. Like in America, pursuing this dream took about 9 years of intense study. I asked her about how being female had affected her medical training, a thought that had been on my mind since attending an orthopedics conference several days earlier. About an hour into the conference, my fellow volunteer leaned over to me and whispered, “You’re the only female in this entire room.” Suddenly the male:female ratio in American orthopedics programs didn’t seem quite as intimidating.

Medical training aside, Samira said, being a female in general was difficult in Nepal. Women there were “always under a male,” she explained. In Nepal, females begin facing obstacles even in the womb. On our first day shadowing Samira, a young couple came requesting an ultrasound to determine the gender of their young female, ready to terminate the pregnancy if they were carrying a girl. Samira refused, explaining to us later that this is such a common request that it’s the hospital’s policy not to reveal fetal gender until the fifth month of pregnancy. Understandably, it was difficult to obtain education as a woman, and when I asked her if she had any female role models to help guide her, she said no. What made her journey even more difficult, she said, is that she is Muslim, making her part of an even tinier minority.

Even facing all of these difficulties, the problems that Samira discussed were very similar to the ones being discussed by women in America today. She spoke of juggling all of the responsibilities of her career while raising her family. Her husband is incredibly supportive of her career, something which can’t exactly be said about her children. “Just be our Mama,” they say to her.

Having grown up with a mother in the medical field myself, these pleas reminded me of what I used to wish as a young child. I remembered how I hated hearing the pager go off at night because it meant that she would have to leave. How I was so envious of all the other kids whose mothers picked them up right after school while I had to wait until the evening to see mine. But as I’ve grown older, these memories have dimmed next to the enormous sense of pride I hold for my mother’s career. Whenever anyone asks me why I am pursuing medicine, she is always my reason. Samira’s children, I am certain, will one day be able to experience this sense of pride in all of the inspirational accomplishments of their mother.

I ended our discussion by asking Samira how being a female had helped her in her medical career. Here, she talked specifically about her position as director, saying that the board of directors was more likely to trust a female (since they are “more honest”). Management, she says, “is a skill. Not everyone is blessed with it.” Whether or not being a female helped bless Samira with these skills is hard to say, but in either case, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m so happy God made me female,” she said, smiling.Me too.