Sharon Beth Larson, the first female cardiothoracic surgeon at UI Hospitals & Clinics, chose a path not often pursued by women.
Editor’s note: September is Women in Medicine Month. This is a first in a series of articles showcasing how women in UI Health Care are changing medicine, changing lives.
Not many people can say that they made their career choice when they were just eight years old. But for Sharon Beth Larson, DO, MS, FACOS, FACS, her future was steady and clear: cardiothoracic surgery.
“My mother tells the story of asking me what I wanted to be around age eight,” explains Larson. “I said right away, ‘heart surgeon.’ I think that was a surprise for her! No one in my family was a doctor; my dad was in corporate business and my mom was in education.”
Larson, who is the first female cardiothoracic (CT) surgeon at UI Hospitals & Clinics, believes an early fascination with fixing things, rebuilding what has been broken, and working with her hands drove her to surgery.
She also credits her parents with encouraging her and her two sisters to push themselves, to work hard, and never limit their outlooks. Larson finds a great deal of strength and inspiration in her mother, who has a doctoral degree in education and attended nursing school.
A challenging, but rewarding road
Women have made tremendous gains in medicine in the last few decades. For the first time ever in 2018, women were the majority of both applicants and new enrollees to medical schools in the U.S., according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
This is encouraging progress, but there are still a number of gender gaps in medicine. CT surgery, which repairs conditions involving the heart, lungs, esophagus, and chest wall, is one of those.
Women made up nearly a quarter of CT surgery residents and fellows in the U.S. in 2017 and 2018, according to the American Medical Association. However, only five percent of active CT surgeons in the U.S. are women, according to The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.
“The road is long in cardiothoracic surgery,” says Larson, who completed her undergraduate and masters degrees in Texas, four years of medical school in California, a five-year general surgery residency at NYU Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, a three-year cardiothoracic surgery fellowship at the University of Minnesota, and a one-year thoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support fellowship at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “But I always told myself, if someone had to do heart surgery on one of my family members, I hope they had trained as long as I did.”
It takes heart
The desire to make a difference, to heal, to rebuild what was once broken, is what drove Larson in her first days of medical school and each and every day since then.
“Others look to you in times of crisis,” she says when describing her role. “You have to let your work speak for itself.”
Often dealing with extremely challenging cases, Larson is the first to admit that her job is stressful. But she finds a great deal of inner strength through her Christian faith and in activities like yoga and centering exercises, and recognizes that when it comes to medicine, no one can save a life on their own.
“Every day, we all come into work, and no matter our roles or departments or tenure, we’re all changing lives–saving lives–together,” she says. “It’s about doing our very best so our patients are able to live their very best.”