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We live in an era, where an increasing number of women are breaking conventions and following their dreams. And although the journey has begun, there’s a long way to go. There are certain fields, where the representation of women is startlingly shocking—fields such as neurosurgery.
This branch of medicine that goes back a 100 years has a small community of specialists globally, to the tune of 50,000. Speaking of India, there are only 3,700 neurosurgeons, and this branch is in dire need of structuring. Globally, it is estimated that 1 in 20 neurosurgeons is female, which makes it less than 1% in totality. The story is no different in India.
Despite the hardships for women to break into this field, Dr Shradha Maheshwari didn’t once lose her determination. She is the third female neurosurgeon in Mumbai, and is ranked amongst the best in the country today. Her passion and perseverance have made her an inspiration for many other women to follow this path.
In an exclusive conversation with Health Shots, she tells us all about her journey, why there is less representation of women in the field, and how 2020 has been a year of learning for everyone—including the medical fraternity.
Dr Maheshwari always aspired to be a doctor, although neurosurgery was not on her mind. Call it a stroke of luck, but she had stumbled upon a course in neurosurgery in the newspaper, and decided to go for it, after being initially hesitant. Little did she know she’d get selected, and this decision would completely alter the course of her life.
“Although I got selected, I was still unsure if I wanted to pursue neurosurgery. A lot of senior doctors advised that this branch is not meant for women. But my parents encouraged me, and that’s when I decided to go for it. Even when I opted for the course, I had some great teachers who were passionate about neurosurgery, and that helped me too. But I couldn’t help but notice that I had to work much harder than men to prove my worth. It made me think if it was gender bias or if they were naturally more comfortable working with men?,” she says.
It was only after a few years that she realised that there were hardly any female neurosurgeons around. As the third female neurosurgeon in Mumbai, a plethora of opportunities lay before her, but the journey was riddled with challenges.
“I worked at various big hospitals, where they didn’t even have a room, where a woman could go and rest. Although one could cope up with erratic working hours, an unfamiliar environment, or even unsuitable working conditions—what really hit me hard was that the women around would not support a woman neurosurgeon. There was so much resistance in accepting a woman as a neurosurgeon, or as their boss,” adds Dr Maheshwari.
The gender discrimination was not just limited to collegaues, but also patients. Several times, people came up to her and asked, “You are a woman, would you be able to perform the surgery?”. Although, all these situations did make Dr Maheshwari uncomfortable and unmotivated, the joy of excelling in her field kept her going.
Soon after, she was presented with an opportunity to develop a neurosurgery department in a government-run medical college, and while many others had refused this offer, Dr Maheshwari decided to take it up. And she certainly thinks it’s one of the best decisions of her professional life!
Dr Maheshwari feels that there are several reasons why women do not take up neurosurgery. To begin with, the operations are long, and are done at erratic hours, primarily because most are emergency cases. This means women have to compromise on their family life, and most are not comfortable with that.
Secondly, a neurosurgeon deals with the brain and spine, and women are inherently considered physically weaker, says Dr Maheshwari, so it is considered to be a challenge for them to perform these operations.
Although this branch of medical science still requires more structuring, she believes that things have begun to change a little. For one, performing surgeries today is less cumbersome. She also feels that slowly and steadily, more women are opting for this field, and that’s a welcome change!
2020 has been a year of crisis and change, and life took a major turn for most of us due to the covid-19 outbreak. It hit most industries, but the medical fraternity was the first to face all the challenges, says Dr Maheshwari.
“Right from keeping pace with the increasing number of cases and trying to boost the ill-powered medical system, to coping up with new medical protocols practically everyday—we were dealing with multiple challenges at a given point in time. More than 50% of the neurosurgical work comes under emergency, so our services never paused. Whether they were covid positive or negative, we performed surgeries for patients who needed them,” she explains, adding that she too contracted coronavirus in the process.
In spite of the challenges that neurosurgery comes with, Dr Maheshwari feels women are perfect for this field.
“Women are good at multitasking, and handling delicate things. Neurosurgery needs both, so women are naturally gifted to be in this branch. Times are changing rapidly, and women today are more courageous in every field, including neurosurgery. Lastly, I would want each female neurosurgeon to mentor at least one more female to become a neurosurgeon. I strongly believe that ‘only a woman can be a woman’s greatest strength, and each woman should remember that,” she says, signing off.