Today is National Women Physicians Day and it has deep meaning for me. In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate from medical school in the US. This woman put vision and passion above all “common” sense to make this happen. 90 years later my grandmother, Helena de Kay Gilder, was one of a handful of women to graduate from Cornell Medical School until that point. In another 70 years I would graduate from medical school with a class that was 51% women.
In 1990 I interviewed my grandmother about her experiences pioneering in a surgical residency and her early days leading the American Women’s Medical Association. She was a house officer where she was only called nurse and told she mustn’t sleep in the doctors’ beds lest someone think something nefarious was going on. It was, truly, an impossible situation. She was humble, unemotional, and even blasé as she described these times. She would bring my uncle and then my mom as babies to her lab, placing then in a desk drawer (open, of course) while she worked sometimes because there was no other way to do her work. She could not give up one moment of the opportunity she earned. I pressed her about it, in my head thinking she wore a cape and went around knocking down walls. She did not see it this way. She said, “We just forged on. We didn’t have time to waste focusing on the problems.”
I often think about how different things are and how similar. When my daughter was a baby I would have her babysitter bring her to my work so I could nurse her while I ate lunch, simultaneously trying to finish notes. Like with my grandmother, there just wasn’t enough of me to go around but I forged on. Everyday I hear stories of women physicians forging on around the world during COVID. The stories are beautiful and heart wrenching. Of course this is true for so many essential workers and I am so grateful to them, but today is National Women Physicians Day and I would like to honor my peers, my friends, my mentors, my heroes, and most important to me, my grandmother. She taught me to keep standing when the world would have me sit, keep grounded when the situation was beyond grasp, and for heavens sakes, have a cheeky grin while doing it!