At the Bedside

In the midst of the world’s battle with the COVID-19 virus, I sit with one of my patients who is engaged in a different, and equally enormous inner battle, every cell in her body fighting to fend off an unrelenting attack from cancer. 

She has been through so much. Chemo. Pain. Revision surgery after revision surgery. She lays in her hospital bed, gazing at the ceiling, reminiscing, recalling: 

My patient and her horse on the beach in California, circa 1970 (published with permission).

An hourglass. 

Botched parts in a play resurrected with impromptu humor. 

San Pedro, California in the late 1950s, “We all danced with the Slovenians until the wee hours of the morning. It was the melting pot of Los Angeles.”

She started her acting career when she was 6 years old, singing on the stage of Dana Junior High. 

Richard Carpatino was her first love. “Then he spit on me at school, and I knew no matter how my heart felt, I could no longer be in love with him.”

She sang in a girl’s folk band. She got kicked out of the band because the other girls said she wasn’t good enough. 

She joined a band called The Traditions and “they were very old school. One night, the leader of the band called me and told me he had too much heroine in his system. We found him on the toilet, then his brother and I threw him in the bathtub. We ended up burying him. He was such a nice guy.”

Her mom made her promise that when she became a certain age, she would do a beauty contest.  “The night before the contest, they had us write something that we would read the next day on the stage. When I got up there, I said, “Howdy!” and everyone started laughing. I knew I had them right there. When it was all said and done, I accidentally won.”

My patient’s Ms. San Pedro headshot, circa 1970 (published with permission).

Donning her “Ms. San Pedro” ribbon and a red, white and blue jumper with heels, she broke the ground at the opening of the Vincent Thomas Bridge from San Pedro to Long Beach. 

Before today, I knew none of this about her. She’d always been one of my favorite patients, breaking out into spontaneous song in her exam room, but I only knew her as a hairless fighter, hunched over on her cane, hobbling in and out with an empty threat here and questionable compliment there, a wealth of spirit always apparent. 

When we care for our patients, we see them in a state that does not represent the full richness of their souls, the wealth of their spirits, the depths of their life accomplishments. They are frail, weak, in pain, delirious. In the age of COVID-19, without family by their sides, we healthcare workers serve as their only witnesses. And there is so much we are unable to know about these human beings we care for. But I would posit, if we slow down, even just a little, we can feel tiny pieces of these histories emanating from our patient’s bodies, like flashes of parts from a 100,000-piece puzzle. 

Is there a better way to honor our patients as they near their final days? 

As I Purell my hands and get ready to leave the hospital room, my patient yells out,

“I once took my bike to the top of the hill behind my parents’ apartment, stood on the seat and rode all the way down, standing, only holding the handlebars!” 

In these ever-trying times, may we each do our best to wave our patients’ handlebar moments high. 

Wishing everyone safety and health,

Girl Neurosurgeon

Limbic Coloring

Image result for the limbic system
 The human brain, with the structures of the limbic system colorized. Arthur Toga / UCLA / Getty Images, via

Emotions are pigments that color our lives. They also directly and substantially contribute to our experience of physical pain, something we treat often in neurosurgery. A painful stimulus in our periphery travels and synapses in the dorsal column of our spinal cord. The signal is then passed along and ultimately travels to and through the periaqueductal gray matter before synapsing in the thalamus. From the thalamus, the signal travels to and through our anterior cingulate gyrus, insula, amygdala and medial temporal lobe prior to reaching it’s final conscious state in our frontal and parietal cortices. It is important to differentiate the actual signal of the pain from what we do with that signal in our brain. Our limbic system can amplify or quiet incoming pain signals. Negative emotions amplify pain signals, positive emotions quiet them. In order to thrive in any circumstance, including chronic pain, tapping into positive emotions and memories can be medicine in and of itself. Conversely, living in fear, helplessness and hopelessness are literally toxic to our wellbeing.

How can we tap into positive emotional states?

First, we can remember them. Think about your favorite thing to do as a kid. Who was your favorite family member or friend growing up? How did they make you feel? Can you remember a time when you couldn’t stop laughing? Where were you? Who were you with? Did you feel light afterwards?

Second, we can practice them. Start with doing things that have previously made you feel good, and then expand from there. Notice how you feel in different environments and with different people, and put yourself in the environments with people who help you feel your best. Practice actions that make you feel content, at peace, and happy. Make a daily gratitude list.

Finally, we can plan them. Set aside time to plan for something you love, something you know will make you happy, and get to work making it happen.

About Silcenced Superheroes

I can’t help but look at this photo of myself in the OR, now many years ago, and think about how the face mask reminds me of a muzzle. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “muzzle (v.) to prevent (a person or group) from expressing their opinions freely”. Surgical residency is full of this. The important thing is to keep your reflections and ideas tight to your chest. At the end of the day, everyone has to show their cards.

Check out Dr. Nisha Mehta’s reflections on being a woman physician in the 20 teens.

“Guilt is useless. Determination is important” – on being a physician with little kids.

Just as pregnant women are at increased risk of domestic violence, breast feeding healthcare workers are at increased risk of losing their jobs.

Do not despair, my friends. Change is on the horizon. Approaching faster than we think.

Neurosurgery + Motherhood



I was a neurosurgeon before I was a mother. People often ask me which is harder, and I always reply, “For sure, motherhood.” I’ve found that this is a hard answer for many to hear.

It is my and my husband’s wish that we raise children in this world who, value the work that women do, respect ALL human beings regardless of sex, color, religion or education, and break loose from the chains of 20th century oppression (Photo credit: S. Malkhassian).

The Milky Way Mind: Ending gender bias in medicine, leadership and the workplace

By Whitney James, MD – Girl Neurosurgeon

“What we have found consistently, is that when we present women and men with exactly the same credentials, qualifications and backgrounds, for a job that is traditionally male, held by men in our culture, thought to require male attributes, we consistently find that the woman is seen as more incompetent than the man.”

– Madeline Heilman, PhD, Department of Psychology, NYU

A couple of weeks ago, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at Kaiser Permanente’s Women in Medicine Symposium in San Diego, California. Some of my key messages:

  • Presently, fewer than 1/5 of our elected leaders are women.
  • Fewer than 1/20 of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
  • In 1966, only 6% of medical student graduates where women. In 2016, 46% of medical school graduates were women.
  • Yet still, in 2018, only 1 in 5 full professors of medicine is a woman.
  • Only 15% of Department Chairs in medicine are women.
  • Only 3% of Chairs of Departments of Surgery are women.

Women in traditionally male fields, such as medicine, often find themselves in a catch 22. Either they are perceived as “too nice”, which comes across as “weak” and “incompetent”. Or, they are perceived as competent, but “unlikeable”, “untrustworthy”, “not a team player”. Sometimes, the perception can oscillate back and forth between “weak” and “unlikeable” many times during the course of a work day. Shankar Vedantam has an entire Hidden Brain episode devoted to this very topic, and definitely worth a listen.

One of my key messages in my talk was that nothing is going to change without the support, backing and motivation of the majority group, in this case men. In any situation of discrimination, the discriminator must be the one to question their own perceptions and subconscious biases, recognize them, and be committed to opening their minds to alternate possibilities. It should not be on the shoulders of the discriminated to change their behavior so as to conform to the majority group.

Ending gender bias in medicine, leadership and the work place can’t just be on the women aiming for the corner office.

It has to be on all of us.

Trust & Lies: The Predicament of Modern Medicine

Trust is absolutely pivotal in the practice of medicine. Patients need to trust their physicians. Physicians need to trust other members of the medical community. The medical community needs to trust the medical literature and evidence-based guidelines. But what if much of day-to-day medicine is actually rooted in subtle lies, bias, faulty perceptions and misconceptions?

The Lies We Tell – Social Bias, Myths and Blindspots in Medicine is a brilliantly written piece by Dr. Charles Odonkor and a worthy read for any aspiring medical student or young physician. It is a call to first, be honest with yourself. It will be the next generation of physicians’ unique challenge to “reconcile the disharmony between stated ideals vs. the realities, which often arise in the imperfect science and art of medicine.

Part 2 to the above series, here.

More to come on the topic of trust in medicine in the coming weeks.


Do Androids Dream of “He” Docs?

In a courageous JAMA article from this month, “Putting the “She” in Doctor,” Dr. Ersilia M. DeFilippis tells the story of Margaret Ann Bulkley (aka, James Barry) a 19th century Irish military surgeon who dressed as a man in order to pursue a career in surgery. As a 21st century physician, Dr. DeFilippis laments that it would probably be easier on female doctors if they continued to dress as men.

““For the women in the room: raise your hand if you have ever been called a nurse.” I was in a residency noon conference on gender bias in medicine. Everyone raised their hands, including the newest interns who had started a few months earlier. When the speaker asked the men in the room, no hands went up.”

Sexual assault, harassment and sexism toward women in medicine is rampant, underreported and directly affects patient care and outcomes. If you’re wondering why this is read Dear ACGME: Primum non nocere.

“Sexual assault and harassment has been shown in all levels of academic medicine from attending physicians to resident physicians to medical students, but only 20% of these behaviors are reported.” 

Ideas for how to address this dark secret in medicine, including a Response to Dr. DeFilippis’s piece, are beginning to surface. If you have any ideas of your own, please comment.


Female Physicians Speaking Up

Elizabeth Raskin, fourth from left, poses for a portrait with colleagues Alicia Teferi, Elisa Bianchi, Valentina Bonev, Maggie Legan, Sharon Lum, Allison Davila, Ann Lin, Kristine Bonnick and Eugenia Kwon, left to right, at the Loma Linda University Medical Center on January, 30, 2018, in Loma Linda, Calif. Raskin says workplace gender equality is a big emphasis at Loma Linda University Medical Center; she hopes other hospitals, health care centers, and institutions will follow suit. Dania Maxwell / for NBC News

First, SELF

“Physicians, caregivers, administrators and others who are responsible for caring for others often find themselves at risk of stress and burnout. Stress impacts people differently; female physicians have a suicide rate up to four times greater than the national average. Persons who identify with minority groups also face minority stress; African Americans suffer from higher rates of cancer and diabetes than other groups. LGBT persons suffer from higher rates of depression and addiction. As we begin 2018 it’s more important than ever for all of us to continue to identify stress and respond in healthy ways.” – R. Scott Boots, MPA, The Health Cares Exchange Initiative, Inc. 

The Health Cares Exchange Initiative, Inc. ( was founded in Boston nearly three decades ago in response to caregiver stress. HCEI’s seminar “Celebrating Ourselves: Beating Burnout” has been presented to thousands of caretakers around the world. Most people hide stress from others and will rarely ask for help. But when caring people care for themselves first, they care for others better. Please visit to join efforts to support medical students, residents, physicians and caretakers in your community.

Photos courtesy of the links.

The Neuroanatomy of Social Stereotyping

Today we recall, celebrate and reflect on the birth and life of the great civil rights leader,

Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Social stereotypes have a neuroanatomical basis, and they can cause as much – or more – suffering than cancer, hunger or physical trauma. The images below represent the biological roots of racism, bigotry, genocide and oppression. By attempting to understand our own brains and biases, we can begin to bridge gaps of social division, nurture compassion for ourselves and others, and do our own little part to promote peace on this planet.

The ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) (a) is activated

when stereotyping individuals via “person judgements”.

The amygdala (b) is also activated when stereotyping,

as well as the middle temporal gyrus (c) and the supramarginal gyrus (d).

“Acquired during early childhood and reinforced throughout adult life, stereotypes shape thought and action in innumerable ways. In a world of daunting interpersonal complexity, the primary benefit of stereotyping is that it offers apparent insights into the personalities and deeds of others without the cumbersome necessity of getting to know them. For example, whereas women are thought to be nurturing and to be found cooking and gossiping, emotionally repressed men are believed to enjoy repairing cars and guzzling beer. While clearly simplifying the process of person understanding, stereotypical thinking is not without its problems. Through indiscriminate application, stereotyping promotes judgmental inaccuracy, societal inequality, and intergroup conflict.

fMRI images and quote from Quadflieg et al. (2008). Exploring Social Stereotypes. J Cognitive Neuroscience, 21:8, 1560-1570

May we all put forth a greater effort to understand ourselves and each other.

Happy MLK Day!