We spoke to Dr Robyn Anderson about her experience as part of the first cohort of participants to join SurgIn: The Lewin programme.
Dr Robyn Anderson is currently an F3. She will be a CT1 come August, having secured a general surgery theme post. She will start in cardiothoracics, moving to plastics surgery, and then general surgery for the rest of her time as a core surgical trainee.
Why did you join the SurgIn programme?
So I'd always known about MelaninMedics, and I saw it on the Instagram and I thought, It sounds really weird - but I'd actually had a similar idea earlier in the year before I saw the application. It was because I thought that there's not really like an official mentoring or support system for black medics, especially in surgery. I knew that a lot of what MelaninMedics had done was with medicine, but I hadn't seen anything like it for surgery. So initially I was just like, I'll give it a go and do the application and see. But actually I think it was almost craving to be around other black people with my same goal because everyone else that I knew bar like one of my friends - either didn't want to do surgery or was white. So just to have a place where I could air those frustrations, learn from people who have probably been through and thought through the same processes that I was going through at the time - I thought was really good. And I think it was also appealing because it wasn't a massive commitment, but I felt like what they advertised I could get quite a lot out of because it was only like 4 or five sessions throughout the year, which isn't a lot to make. But I thought that if it was what it said it was going to be, then I would get a lot out of it.
What sort of things do you feel black doctors who want to go into surgery miss out on?
I think it's that element of somebody very plainly telling you this is what you need to do. I think at the leadership session that we had, I think it was Christine was talking about how we don't have an old boys club. And it's people saying to you this is what they're saying. But this is what you actually need to do. Which in surgery, I feel more so than medicine is more prevalent. I just found that people were very unwilling to - I guess I found a few registrars - but people were very unwilling to share that. I think sometimes in order to get ahead in surgery, and to plan through your path in surgery, you need to know what you actually need to do.
How do you feel the SurgIn programme has prepared you for your future surgical career?
I think the practical sessions that we had, like the interview sessions and the initial session to do with applications, that was quite helpful for me. Also just that inspiration of seeing people who have done it, I think for me it was a lot, especially in the East Midlands, there aren't very many black surgeons, male or female. But one thing that SurgIn has shown me is senior female surgeons in all specialties. Which is something that I don't think without that, I would have been able to see and also to have the opportunity to ask them questions and interact on like a more, not informal level, but a more comfortable level.
So I'd say the practical sessions that we had were really helpful. And in those sessions, I feel like everybody was very honest, which then helped when I was doing other sessions and preparing for interviews. I didn't go on any official courses - I just did block practice with you obviously. And then, some things that my Deanery put on for free. I found in the deanery ones, they just gave positive feedback, which is great, but it's not actually helpful. I liked that in the MelaninMedics one there was obviously the positive stuff, but they gave you those little hints and tips of "You're not quite doing this right," which was more helpful I felt. On the kind of, I suppose, less hard evidence side, just having those opportunities, inspirations and people who I feel like going forward, if I had any issues or I wanted to talk to someone about it, I wouldn't feel, I wouldn't feel worried to contact people in the future. And I think it's that network that I was missing before.
What is one thing you will take forward from your experience in the SurgIn programme?
I would say, it's kind of a combination of two things. Always go for the opportunities that you think will fit for you, even if you don't necessarily believe that you'll get them - go for them and within that, don't think that you can't because of x, y and z. I think a lot of the people I've spoken to and the people who have done talks at the sessions, they've kind of had a 2 common themes. One is "I just did what I enjoyed and what was my passion and it worked out". So like why not go for it? Like why not You? And also that, if you work hard in whatever you're doing, people will see that and you will work hard if you've got a passion for something. I think I found it quite difficult, in probably the last like 18 months, to know what to go for, what to say no to, what to pursue. A lot of the times when I've asked in the programme, people said if it's something that you're passionate about and you feel like you can take it forward, don't let other people’s doubts about you stop you from going for something. I guess as black people, as black surgeons, as black women, we won't always have people on our side. So if you don't advocate for yourself, then who's going to?
What was the most memorable event that you attended?
I would have to say it's probably the last one that I went to, the leadership one. It was a really nice variety of speakers - so there was a T&O Reg, Miss Christine Mitoko, who's in Neurosurgery and then a consultant who's a respiratory consultant who's spoke to us about types of leadership and management. And he just went through a lot of things - he went through the 16 personalities. And I think I've always thought of myself as quite not an introvert, but I'm not really the person who's going to stand at the front. Because of that, I think I've always subconsciously thought that I wasn't maybe best suited to lead. And that day kind of showed me that there are different ways to lead, and even if you're not the loudest, there are still ways to put yourself forward and to be assertive and authoritative for people to listen to you, in an arena or a space where people might not want to. I think that's something that I will remember - just because it was so different and it changed my perspective completely on me being a leader and how I can impact the space that I'm in and other people.
What would you advise black female doctors who are considering applying for SurgIn?
This is really like corny, but do it. Just go for it. The experience that I've had in surgeon I've not seen or experienced anywhere else. I'm part of the British Society of Black Surgeons. I'm part of lots of other societies and organisations that are for upcoming black surgeons. But I think it's that in-person, like having the sessions, being there, having those conversations even just like the conversations you have in the tea breaks like those are things that you don't, I haven't seen, that you get in any other programme. I think sometimes those are the most valuable things - making those in-person connections and seeing where you can fit in.
Any final words?
I would just encourage everyone to do it. And I think it's about taking those opportunities when they come, but the SurgIn is a very, very unique thing to be a part of. And even when I tell my friends about it and what I'm doing, they're all like that must be really good. Because literally every time I come back, I'm driving home on the phone to my mom. Like, "Mom, you will never guess what, I'm so excited, I'm so inspired, I really want to do this." I feel like sometimes, when you're not surrounded all the time by people who are like pushing you to go for things and putting you forward for things, you need that little boost stuff so often to be like, "yes, I can do it. I've made the right decision." There are people doing it, enjoying it. It's a space where the people who come to talk to us are very honest, none of them have been like "ohh yeah, it'll be easy, it'll be fine." They've been very honest about their experience, but also been very practical in that,"Yes, it was hard. But I did this, this and this to make it a bit easier. So like if you try this way - maybe it will be better for you." Do you know what I mean? And learning from the experience of others who have been through it and also looking at surgeons who didn't take the straightforward path that everyone talks to you about, I've found really good because, I'm intent on enjoying my life. So I feel like the linear pathway that they try and shove everyone down is just not for me, and I've not, until SurgIn, I've not seen anyone who hadn't done that path, so that's also an encouragement for me. Surgery can work for everyone, because I feel like, it's portrayed as a career where you have to be like, "surgery is life" - you can't do anything else. We've seen people who have made it work for them, which is really encouraging for me.