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VCU Health surgeon inspired by study that touts female surgeons’ positive outcomes


At a petite 5 feet 2 inches, Paula Ferrada, M.D., might not appear physically formidable. The medical director of the Surgical and Trauma Intensive Care Unit at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center fondly remembers a comment by a patient’s father that reminded her of her slight stature.

“I was afraid when I saw you at the beginning, so tiny and a girl. But boy, you proved me wrong,” the patient’s father said. “Thank you for saving my son’s life.”

A new study published in BMJ, an international peer-reviewed medical journal, indicates that patients treated by female surgeons have a “small but statistically significant decrease in 30-day mortality and similar surgical outcomes (length of stay, complications, and readmission), compared with those treated by male surgeons.” The study was led by a male doctor, Raj Satkunasivam, M.D., an assistant professor of urology at Houston Methodist Hospital, and also suggests further research is needed to determine what drives the difference in mortality rates, so that all surgeons can take heed and be successful.

Ferrada has been vocal nationally about eliminating stereotypes, particularly those related to male-dominated professions like hers — surgery. She joined the faculty at VCU in 2010 and is also an associate professor of surgery and director of VCU’s Surgical Critical Care Fellowship Program. Nationally, she is a leader of the #ilooklikeasurgeon social media campaign that began in 2015, and continues to sprout up via Facebook and other mediums, with female physicians’ testimonies of their triumphs while studying and practicing medicine.

VCU News spoke with Ferrada about her thoughts on the study results, and her hopes for the future of the surgery profession for female doctors.

Paula Ferrada, M.D. What is your immediate, initial reaction to the study as it relates to female surgeons’ success in their profession?

I’m immensely excited that science is showing the successes of female surgeons. Part of the reason why I’m so vocal about the issue is because I believe it is the job of all of us to support minorities and avoid discrimination. There have been changes in the past few years, and I believe these will continue. VCU and VCU Health do an excellent job offering honest conversations about diversity, which I see throughout our departments. Michel Aboutanos, M.D., [VCU Trauma Center medical director] is a great advocate for women in surgery — not only for me but other women in our division. Incidentally, his wife is also a surgeon. My husband, Rahul Anand [VCU associate professor of surgery] is a trauma surgeon too. He is my partner and also my rock.

In your work, what have you experienced as a constant battle for female surgeons?It is a fine balance to be taken seriously and at the same time not be too aggressive. 

What are your hopes for the surgery profession for women and overall?
In my dream world, surgeons would be judged by their outcomes, capacity and skills, rather than misjudged by any other bias.

What has been the response to you as a surgeon, from your male patients and their families?
I have been extremely lucky with my patients. Even when some discriminatory comment might have been said in the past, somehow I always end up having great relationships with my patients and their families. I have very grateful patients and families that have become almost part of my extended family. Once you go through a difficult, stressful situation such as life-threatening disease, the emotional ties are binding, in a good way. 

As a child, was surgery what you always wanted to do professionally?
No. But, I always knew I wanted to help people somehow. Human connections are the most rewarding part of my job, and I treasure these immensely.

What is your advice to current and aspiring female surgeons?

  • Never give up. Don't let anyone tell you who you should be.
  • Follow your heart, work hard, believe that you can do it and you will do it.
  • Reach out if you need help. There are a bunch of us out there willing to help, support, advise and encourage you along the way.
  • You are not alone. We are all in this together.

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