Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia's first all-female transplant surgery team breaks barriers

As Dr. Stephanie Hiebert prepared to transplant a man's liver a few months ago, she realized she needed to take a photo of the surgical team. She was surrounded by six women and the only man in the room was the patient.

'I really hope that exposure to this is going to change gender stereotypes as a whole,' says surgeon

All the members of the surgical team for a recent liver transplant were women, a first for Nova Scotia, says the Nova Scotia Health Authority. (MAD.vertise/Shutterstock)

As Dr. Stephanie Hiebert prepared to transplant a man's liver a few months ago in Halifax, she realized she needed to add a task to her preparation — taking a photo.

Hiebert's surgical team on that day, seven members in all, was made up of women. The only man in the room was the patient.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority says the all-female transplant team was a first for the province. It is believed to be a first for the country.

"To my knowledge there's either two or three female liver transplant surgeons in Canada," said Hiebert, adding that those surgeons have only been on the job for a few years.

From left to right are Jennifer Kidson, Dr. Ashley Drohan, Dr. Adrienne Carr, Dr. Dolores McKeen, Dr. Stephanie Hiebert and Antonia Mavrogiannis. Amber Kelly is in front. (NSHA)

"If it has happened, it's been recent, for sure," she said. 

Hiebert, the surgeon, was working alongside a general surgery resident, two anesthesiologists and three nurses during the transplant. She can't say when the surgery happened for privacy reasons.

She said women who work in surgery constantly face gender stereotypes, but things are beginning to change.

Dr. Adrienne Carr was one of two anesthesiologists in the operating room that day.

"Surgery is a tough field for women to get into," Carr said. "A lot of times we hear — which I don't know how often men hear — you look too young to be my doctor."

Carr said she read a new study this week that showed men are seen as more authoritative than women in situations when someone is being resuscitated, regardless of their job and qualifications.

"This is 2020 and I feel like we should be better," she said. 

'People have assumed that I was the nurse'

When she speaks with patients, the conversation is often about her gender and not about her qualifications, Carr said.

"The number of times that I've walked up to a patient's bed and people have assumed that I was the nurse, or looked past me to my more junior resident or medical student, assuming they're the physician, definitely happens more than we'd like."

Hiebert said she also still faces questions about her job.

"It's a look of shock that somebody who's a female would be doing a liver transplant. I really hope that exposure to this is going to change gender stereotypes as a whole."

Hiebert and Carr both say that the number of women in medical school is making a big difference in creating a more diverse hospital staff.

Hiebert said it's important to normalize women working in the field of surgery, and that's why she gave her nieces two surgical dolls to play with.

"For them, it's totally normal," she said. "I hope that one day we can get to a point where everybody just thinks it's just normal."

With files from CBC's Mainstreet