Dr. Zaria Murrell- Pediatric Surgeon

murrellI had never seen so many black female surgeons in one room before. These amazing, beautiful black women are excelling in this male dominated field. I stood at the edge of the room with my mentor and friend, Dr. Arika Hoffman, as I wanted to be able to take it all in. I trained at an institution where I was the only black categorical surgical resident the six years I was there and there was one male African-American surgeon who was in private practice, so you can imagine how excited I was to be in the same room with women in my field who look like me. This was my first time attending the Society of Black Academic Surgeons Scientific Session. I had not known about it before. As I stood there in awe of my colleagues, she walked into the room. She had an energy about her that I admired. I leaned over to my friend and said, I have to know who that woman is. I had already spotted our surgical rockstar, Dr. Velma Scantlebury, in the corner and as soon as it was appropriate we were going to cross the room to speak with her. For us transplant surgery girls, she is our heroine as the first black female transplant surgeon. 

I watched this woman whose name I did not know. She was the epitome of grace, style, elegance, and unmistakably a powerhouse. I found out she was a pediatric surgeon and I was slightly intimidated. Pediatric surgery is the most difficult surgical fellowship to get into and to me they are the true general surgeons as they cover such a wide breath of surgical disease processes. I worked up the courage to approach her and ask to interview her for my blog and she was warm and gracious to me. I enjoyed chatting with her and by the end of the interview, I was blown away by her tenacity, authenticity, and just phenomenalness.

What is your background and why did you choose medicine, specifically pediatric surgery?

I am a native New Yorker, but my parents are from the Caribbean. My mother from a small island called Montserrat and my father from the French side of St. Martin. I was born and raise in New York City with a strong Afro-Carribean influence, spending my summers in the Caribbean. I don’t know when I fell in love with medicine, I just remember watching the 1976 Olympics and watching Nadia Comaneci. I was fascinated with athletics, so I initially went into medical school thinking I would do sports medicine. I had a rude awakening when I saw a broken bone being set and I was sick to my stomach. For some reason seeing intestines and poop did not faze me one bit and shortly after that I did a pediatric surgery rotation and fell in love.  I have always loved fixing things… a career in surgery is rewarding in that I know I have helped correct something that is wrong and is causing pain to the patients. I am always excited about being used as an instrument to bring healing to a variety of patients with surgical issues.

Tell me about your atypical journey to becoming one of thirteen black female pediatric surgeons in the country.

I have always loved the discipline of pediatric surgery and I had every intention of pursuing it thus did two years of research while in residency. I, however, was also interested in the new technologies in surgery in the areas of laparoscopic and robotic surgery as I advanced through residency.  I chose a fellowship in mininally invasive (laparoscopic) surgery and after completing fellowship I worked as a laparoscopic and bariatric surgeon for 7 years before deciding to pursue my true love. When I finished fellowship I was a new wife with an infant and shortly after that became a mother of two. After putting much thought into going back for another specialty training and talking to multiple mentors who encouraged me to follow my passion, I entered the pediatric match in the fall of 2008. Come spring of 2009, I did not match, but God provided me the opportunity to become the Fetal Surgery Fellow and then the Pediatric Vascular Anomalies Fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) from Fall 2009-June 2011.  However, I still needed to complete an accredited pediatric surgery fellowship program. Once again God provided! Two weeks after completing my Vascular Anomalies Fellowship, in mid-July of 2011, I was working on fetal research projects at CCHMC and I received an email about a sudden opening of an accredited pediatric surgery fellowship position in Louisville, KY. I got the position and completed a 2-year pediatric surgery fellowship in 2013.

What are 3 must have characteristics for those young women interested in surgery?

  • Honesty
  • Thoroughness
  • Dedication

This process is a long process, sometimes taking way longer than 5-7 years, at times 9, 10, 11, or 12 years. But as long as you don’t only focus on the end point, but learn to enjoy the journey, you will thrive. Expect a significant amount of growth, the process is necessary. I can not emphasize enough the importance of honesty, even in the little things. Don’t say that you examined the patient or a particular aspect of the body when you didn’t look. This is someone’s life in your hands and giving inaccurate data can cause harm to a patient and make you untrustworthy to your superiors. Honesty is key.

For the undergraduate student, good study habits are a must, being very disciplined in college will go a long way for the remainder of your training. Study habits formed in college will have an impact on your medical education. If possible, take a review course for the MCAT and just do as many practice questions as you possibly can. For the medical student, pray and ask God for guidance, realizing that you have to really love surgery to choose such a demanding lifestyle. Communicate well with your team and read about every surgical case before going to the operating room. Don’t be afraid to ask thoughtful questions. Ask yourself on your surgical rotation; ‘do I really love this and can I live like this?’ 

What are the stereotypes you have faced as a black female surgeon?

I hate stereotypes. It shouldn’t matter what I look like on the outside. I have all this training and I still hate the fact that some people when they first see me ask, “Who’s that black girl? Are you a nurse? Are you cleaning up?” There are people that look at me as though I am suspect, as though to say, “Do you know what you’re really doing?” And I’ve been asked, “How long have you been doing this? I googled you. I asked around.” And I respect that because unfortunately we live in a society where people are judged by their appearance, which is so unfair.

When I was in New York, I was chief resident, and I remember clear as day we were rounding and we were talking to a patient and the patient asked the intern, who happened to be a young white male, what was going to happen next? And the young man looked at me, and said, “You’re going to have to ask my chief. She’s the one who really knows what’s going on with you.” It stumped the patient. I don’t even remember the race of the patient; it was just the fact that he went to the white male in the group even though it was obvious in the group rounds which happened at the patients bedside, that they were reporting to me. He was looking for authority from this young man. And it’s not that he didn’t have authority, but he realized where he was in the hierarchy. I had at the time six years more experience than he had.

What was a typical day for you as a pediatric surgery fellow?
I typically arrived at work at 05:45 to round on babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), then do surgery rounds with the residents from 06:30-07:30; NICU teaching rounds from 07:30-08:00, then, depending on what cases I had assigned myself and the residents to, we are in the operating room from 08:00- 16:00.  In between all the operative cases, we were seeing new consults in the emergency room or NICU, discharging patients, etc.  They were busy days, but fellowship went by fast!


Lets talk a little bit about academic surgery.

I fell in love with academic surgery when I was in private practice. I think everyone should have a goal of reassessing their life plans and life journey every 5-10 years because in order to grow as individuals changes have to happen. As I was reassessing my life goals in my late thirties, I realized that as much as I enjoyed and was content with adult general surgery, I had a longing for pediatric surgery and what crazy woman goes back and considers doing a pediatric surgery fellowship at 40, but I did. A lot of prayer and fasting and conversations with my husband and the pediatric surgeon in town that I worked with. I realized how much I missed being around residents and medical students and teaching. There are a lot of things that I learned in private practice that I have been able to teach residents that I otherwise would not have known. As much as I love academic surgery, I am going back into private practice for family reasons. My mother was diagnosed with cancer and died within a two month period of time and my father is aging and I want to be able to take care of him. As you prioritize your life, for me my family is more important and I also have children growing up and I want to be able to spend more time with them. I have chosen to leave academic medicine to focus on my family’s needs, knowing that academic medicine gladly received me before and I expect it will be there when the times comes that I am in a position to go back.

So, I struggle with finding balance, how do you find balance?

It’s challenging, I wouldn’t have done it without the support of my husband first and foremost, he has always been very encouraging and always willing to fill in the gaps when I am away for long periods of time. My mother was always there, she was a mother of five and she was my children’s main care provider for their first few months of life; my son for 9 months and my daughter for 6 months. When we had our son I was an MIS fellow and I managed to breastfeed him and by the time I had my daughter I was an attending so it was a little easier just because I had more flexibility in my schedule. I wanted to be able to breastfeed my children because it’s what mothers did in my culture growing up. As an attending I had more control of my time, for example I never did a 7:30am case, that way I was able to spend time with the children in the morning and get them off to school. I was committed to spending a certain amount of time with my children so I would have them in the mornings and my husband would take care of them in the evening and it worked out well. I love spending time with my family, running, international travel, medical missionary trips and I play the piano.

One last question. How does your faith tie into your daily life as a surgeon?

Every single aspect of my life as a surgeon, my faith is a part of it. Being a surgeon is my vocation, it’s not just a job, I love what I do. It’s what I am called to do. I have seen God work time and time again in everything through out my journey and in practice. For instance how He orchestrated me being in Cincinnati, the fellowships that I got. One time I was in Kenya operating on a child and I was looking for a mesh to fix a hernia and found instead a fistula anal plug. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find what I wanted but 24 hours later a patient with a fistula-in-ano walked in and I had what I needed to take care of this patient’s problem. I had never seen a fistula-in-ano all the times I had done mission trips in Kenya. I would not have known it was available if I had not been looking for something for someone else. Every step of the way I see God’s hand in my life.

Ok I lied, one last question: Can you tell me about your mission trips to Kenya?

So I have been going to Kenya since 2009. A nurse anesthetist that I used to work with when I was an adult surgeon has an organization called kenyarelief.org which is in a rural part of Kenya near the Tanzania border. He had always asked me to go but it was never the right time, my kids were still very young and I worried about traveling so far and leaving them behind. One day we were working on a case together and he peeked over the drape and said, “we have all these young girls at the orphanage that have never seen a female surgeon who looks like them before” and I was sold. If nothing else for the sake of being a role model and mentor to these young girls. When I went for the first time, I fell in love with Kenya, it reminded me so much of my Caribbean roots. I felt definitely at home. I have young ladies I sponsor and mentor and it’s such a wonderful experience to work with them.



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