By Dr Sethina Watson, Founder of MomMD

Twitter: @morefluids

My name is Sethina and I started this website 20 years ago on my journey to becoming a doctor. Never did I imagine that the website would have such longevity. Without MomMD my career would not have happened, as would those of many other women. I started it because I wanted to find other women in medicine, especially mothers trying to balance the career with home life.

Over 100 years ago Dr Elizabeth Blackwell said, ‘a blank wall of social and professional antagonism faces the woman physician that forms a situation of singular and painful loneliness, leaving her without support, respect or professional counsel.” Unfortunately, in the past 20 years, since MomMD started, I’m not sure if things have changed much for women in medicine. Historically, women’s participation in the physician workforce has been openly discouraged and faced structural and institutional challenges. Today medical schools worldwide are accessible to women applicants. Yet, the same progress gender equity and equal employment opportunities has not really been achieved. Going back 20 years there was a bit of a surge of women applicants to U.S. medical schools (see graph). In 2018-19, 51.5% of matriculants from US medical schools were women. Yet, controversies persist. Recently, in Japan, female medical students saw their marks soar after gender-based rigging of exams was stopped. The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp in healthcare social media movements have opened up discussion about the ongoing inequity and harassment of women in medicine. Women make great physicians, perhaps this threatens male counterparts. Some studies show that women doctors may be providing better care than men. While pondering this state of affairs, I wonder If I update this in 20 years’ time will we still be discussing the same issues or will things have changed? What do you think? Women’s voices are being heard, we must challenge misogyny and inequality where we see fit. Dr Blackwell did. We must continue.

Back to the history of MomMD. In September 1999 the MomMD.com website was launched. It started initially as a website on a free hosting platform and email discussion group from which it quickly outgrew. It was a chance for women to speak to others, find a community and be empowered by the energy of other women. In the first week of its launch it was featured, by the then Internet giant Netscape, as website of the day and things really took off. In September 2019 the site has now has over 1 million users and 11,000 members.

The website idea came to me, when I started thinking about becoming a doctor when I was pregnant with my first child. I was 28 years old and had been working in communications for IT companies. I saw the work of my OB/GYN and started to research what a physician does for a job. In a moment of clarity, I realised that was the career I should have done. But with burgeoning baby belly and no science qualifications it seemed an impossible dream. When you have big ideas and no means to execute them you turn to others for advice and support. Reactions ranged from ‘go for it’ to ‘are you absolutely mad, women cannot and should not be doctors, especially mothers’.

The website idea came to me, when I started thinking about becoming a doctor when I was pregnant with my first child. I was 28 years old and had been working in communications for IT companies. I saw the work of my OB/GYN and started to research what a physician does for a job. In a moment of clarity, I realised that was the career I should have done. But with burgeoning baby belly and no science qualifications it seemed an impossible dream. When you have big ideas and no means to execute them you turn to others for advice and support. Reactions ranged from ‘go for it’ to ‘are you absolutely mad, women cannot and should not be doctors, especially mothers’.

MomMD was born and soon became my other baby. I started it for women thinking about the career, already in medical school, working as physicians or leaving the career. On our forums we connected, we chatted, and we shared the realities of being a woman physician. We made bonds, we made friends and we made decisions. Some of us met in person, we went to AMWA conferences and we built a community. Some of these women I am still in touch with after all these years. Many have accomplished amazing things, and some have now left medicine.

Back in the early 2000s, knowing I wanted to move back to the UK, I applied for medical school three times. The first time I got all rejections and was told that ‘people over 30 are believed to have less capacity for new learning’ in an email from the British Medical Association. I applied again and was invited to interview. Finally, one step in the right direction.

I couldn’t attend as my husband was diagnosed with lymphoma. I reapplied the following year, flew to the UK for an interview and was offered a place at Bristol University. In 2004, my family returned to Britain so I could start medical school. I am now living in the UK with around five years left of my training to complete. Since founding MomMD I now have four children. I had my second child one year after founding the site. Sadly, I got divorced during medical school and in the same year I passed the work of running MomMD.com to another company. Running the site while being a medical student thousands of miles away in another country was too difficult. In 2010, aged 40, I graduated medical school with honours and in that year, I remarried and had another baby. In 2013, I had my fourth child, a daughter who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. I commenced my anesthesiology training in 2014 (specialty training is longer in the UK) and still have some time to becoming a consultant (similar to an Attending). I’m significantly older than many of my peers, sometimes even my Attendings. I have no issue with it, but sometimes they do.

My graduation day with two other moms in medicine!

It has not been easy. Getting into medical school seemed the hardest bit at the time. Then getting through medical school seemed the hardest. Starting work as a physician then made medical school look the easy bit. Getting a specialty training post was then yet another challenge. My training is estimated to be complete in 2023/4. In the UK, retirement age is currently 68, so I’ll have quite a few years contributing with my work as a doctor. Words of ‘wisdom’ I’ve been given over the years include: ‘you’ll never get into medical school’; ‘you’ll never pass your exams’; ‘why aren’t you just satisfied with being a mother’; ‘you don’t stand a hope in hell of getting an anesthesiology training job’; and the frequently mentioned ‘do you know how old you will be when you finish your training?’. When I hear these words, I counter them in my mind with all the helpful comments and the massive support of the MomMD community. It’s important to enjoy the ride, however long and bumpy. While I often obscure my true age because of negativity, I am working on being more open about it again. Next year I turn 50. There you go, I’ve said it. Still feel young and cannot believe that milestone is upon me.

Would I do it again? Honestly, I am not sure. But my career choice of anesthesiology is the best one. I love my job and love the specialty. There is no other specialty for me in medicine. Thank you to every single person who has supported me along the way. I could not have done it without you. Enjoy the site and find the support of other women on here. If you remember me, find me on social media and say hello.

I shall leave you with more words of America’s first female physician Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, born in the UK city of Bristol (where I now live) “None of us can know what we are capable of until we are tested.” So keep on going!

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