Female surgeon hopes to help women’s heart health

Mike DeDoncker

Dr. Karen Thompson is a medical minority of one in Rockford.

As a female cardiothoracic surgeon — the first in the Rockford area — she is also a rarity among women doctors in terms of chosen specialty. According to Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the U.S., only 187 of 256,257 women doctors practicing in 2006 were in thoracic surgery.

Although she thinks the number of women who consider entering her field is likely to increase, “If you look back a couple of years ago, the number of females going into cardiac surgery in general was very small,” Thompson, who joined the staff at SwedishAmerican Hospital on Sept. 1, said. “I know at one of the conferences I attended as I went through my training that I was one of only four females who attended the conference out of 60 or 65 residents.”

She has already performed surgery on more than a dozen patients since joining SwedishAmerican and has assisted her colleague Dr. John Myers on several others. She feels her work has been well received.

I’m just now getting my name out there and getting cardiologists used to me,” Thompson said.

“I don’t think it would matter if it was female or male, people have to start getting to know that you’re there so that they can start referring to you.”

Thompson, who sees patients after they have been referred by a cardiologist or primary care physician, is concerned about growing evidence that women don’t pay close enough attention to their heart health but doesn’t think her biggest chance for influence will be through her practice.

“Where I can benefit women in terms of my field,” she said, “is in education — working with cardiologists to identify populations, if you will, and certainly risk factors and getting out in the public and talking to women.” She said a female cardiologist or cardiac surgeon speaking at a seminar might be more successful in persuading women to take an earlier interest in their heart health.

“Overall, females may think that, as a female physician, they’re going to get somebody who is a little more sensitive or somebody who listens better to them,” Thompson said.

Thompson said she respects being able to draw on the more than 10 years’ experience Myers brings to the cardiothoracic practice and said they have discussed SwedishAmerican’s reaching out to more area communities.

“This is a fairly untapped region in terms of cardiac disease, coronary disease and, certainly, with valve disease,” she said. “If you really have the time and the energy to go into the communities, then the amount of business out there, so to speak, would be pretty amazing.”

She said she hopes to bring off-pump heart surgery and minimally invasive procedures into the practice.

“We’re at such a new and early phase of him and I working together that the field is wide open right now,” Thompson said. “We’re both very energetic to expand and to grow because in our field, like most fields, if you stand still it all just passes you by. You have to keep up with the technology and things are changing all the time.”

Whatever course the practice takes, Thompson doesn’t foresee problems with bias, even though she is also a member of another medical minority.

“I’m a D.O., doctor of osteopathy, rather than an M.D.,” she said. “It’s the same training, the same four years of medical school, residency, academics and clinicals, but there is an added component to your training called manipulative medicine. I looked at it as just another tool that I had but, unfortunately, I didn’t practice it and it’s a skill that if you don’t use it you lose it.”

She said people who think she might be uncomfortable working in a predominantly male profession are mistaken.

“I tell people I’m a female, I’m a D.O., and honestly I don’t feel like I have taken a lot of flack, but I qualify that because I think that anybody who looks for prejudice of any sort can find it.

“I just haven’t really looked for it. I can’t even point to an experience where I felt like I was dismissed because I was a female and a surgeon, so I think it has a lot to do with your attitude, how you carry yourself, your confidence and, certainly, your training.”

Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815) 987-1382