Women In Medicine
Catherine M. Lynch, MD
Associate Vice President, Obstetrics and
Gynecology, USF Morsani College of Medicine
Impressive and eloquent, Dr. Catherine M. Lynch, 51, is precise with her words, as she reflects back on her remarkable career both in academia administration and medicine. Married to Tampa Mayor, Bill Buckhorn, for 15 years, she has a poised, yet comfortable personality. She cares not just for patients, but also about her community, her family that includes two daughters, Grace and Colleen, and the legacy she will leave behind.
While she has built an impressive career in her own right, she is also a fierce advocate for women in medicine. She was instrumental in launching the first Health Sea Grant campaign to support funding for the USF Morsani College of Medicine. Lynch also champions young girls to learn about medicine and STEM opportunities through an annual career philanthropy day. While Lynch has delivered over 10,000 babies during her career, even more interesting is that she also helped deliver several primates at Busch Gardens.
Here in her own words, Lynch tells us how she stayed ahead of her male colleagues in residency, the benefits of the new downtown medical school, and the most important thing she hopes her daughters will remember about her work.
Tell me how you first got started in medicine and where that led to your “aha” moment.
I’ve often said that as far back as I can remember, I always said I wanted to go into medicine. I do still vividly recall my mom picking me up from nursery school and saying, “I’m going to the hospital and I need to get my womb out.” She seemed so happy with the idea that I thought it was a good thing to take out people’s wombs. Probably the biggest influence was my father who was an internal medicine physician. I saw what he did and thought that that was something worth pursuing.
How did your father’s career in medicine affect the family and what did you learn from him?
As I grew up, my exposure to what he did in the office and at the hospital increased. I grew up in Delray Beach, which, at the time was a pretty small town of about 8,000. We’d be going to church on Sunday and some people would come up to him and say to us, “Your dad saved my wife’s life last week.” As we got older, we’d be up sneaking watching “Creature Feature” on Saturday night and dad would be on call. The phone would ring and we would wait to see if he was going in or going back to bed? If he was going in, he would always come down and get a glass of milk or something from the kitchen. If we thought he was going in, we would watch for the lights progressing towards the kitchen.
Did any of your siblings follow in Dad’s footsteps?
I am the youngest of five children. My oldest sister has her MBA and is a Practice Manager for a pediatric group. My brother is in pulmonary critical care transplant medicine and is a Chief Medical Officer in St. Louis. My sister has a Master’s degree in Nursing and is married to a neurologist, and my other brother is a doctor in Charleston, South Carolina. We have plenty of story swapping, or if I have a neat case, we’ll call each other back and forth about the experience.
How tough was it for you going through medical school and residency?
When I started here at USF Medical School in 1986, (I went to Georgetown for undergrad), I remember very well that they said on the first day that they were very pleased that we were a class of 92 and had the largest percent of women that they’d ever had, with 23 women in the class. So about 25% of the class was female, which when you look back at the national trend at the time they were at 33% so we were still behind a little bit.
In obstetrics and gynecology, and a surgical subspecialty, most of the classes above me in residency had one, maybe two women out of five or six residents in a year, the rest were male. My class was the first that had three women and three men. Now, men are the minority in residency, although in the academic ranks, it’s still dominated by males.
I remember very well, as a medical student being the only female on the team. When you would do your rounds and then go down to the locker rooms, you had to change as fast as possible to get in the lounge area so you didn’t miss your team. I can be a very quick dresser because I didn’t want to be the one leaving the guys standing outside the room waiting for the lady. I also didn’t want to miss some aspects of a discussion that might have started in the men’s locker room about a patient or a procedure or something.
I remember interviewing for residency in a prominent institution in the South and one of the residents who was showing us around. We went down to the operating rooms and saw the doctor’s lounge there and he said that the surgery residents here had prided themselves that they had a 100% divorce rate. I said to myself, I’m not sure that’s the environment I want to be in.
You’re teaching the next generation of physicians. What is different about today’s medical students?
There is a major change. When I trained, you learned by experience and lectures, but it was going for that 10,000 number for proficiency. We did standard call and worked the next day and came back the day after and didn’t think much of it. But now you have resident work hours, which I think is probably one of the hardest things. If I was a resident today with the work hours, I would be trying to not get a shift work mentality and still try to gain that experience of watching the progression of the disease and understanding how things can go one way or the other in clinical settings. They are much more rested, they are able to read and investigate with the Internet and smartphones. They have the ability to say let’s look it up and see what’s the most current answer or the best course of action we can use in this situation. Whereas in my day, you had to go to the library to find that sort of stuff (laughs). You would pull up a textbook and it might be several years old. They have a lot more knowledge available at their fingertips and so they’re able to apply that in a quick fashion. I see the same excitement about medicine, about doing a delivery, about being involved in a surgical case; taking care of somebody and getting them to feel better.
What were some of the challenges facing women in medicine?
I think that the challenges for a woman in medicine can definitely be different. I think once you have children there are some who would certainly believe, well, now that you’re a mom it’s okay, you don’t have to do so much. You’re probably not interested in going for advancement or taking on that responsibility. You really have to kind of put it out there, and say “I’m here to work as hard and as diligently as I always have been.” My husband and I were both taking care of the children and it’s not just me.
You were instrumental in leading the effort to raise the visibility of women at USF. What projects did you initiate?
When I started three years ago a women’s Health Sea Grant Program for the faculty to be involved to get funding for research projects. During our last year, we had 17 different teams that applied for and were awarded three sea grants. One of them received a gift of $30,000 to be used for research. You would be amazed with the research people can do with $7,000 or $10,000. So we’re actually trying to expand our women’s health cooperative foundation so we can continue to provide the resources for people to have some sea grant funding. The program will now be a tool kit on the AAMC, the American Association of Medical College’s website and a prototype for the nation.
How did you meet your husband, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn?
We met through a mutual friend that I was actually in residency with, and she had suggested several times over about three years that I should be meet Bob. I’m like why would I be interested? We went out for lunch one day with two other friends. When I got there she was like, “Oh my god, you’ll never guess who’s here,” and I said, “Who?” She said, “the guy we tried to set you up with for three years!” So he came over and said hello. He had a good handshake that nearly broke my wrist (laughs). When I got back to my office and she went back to her office, he had called her a couple times. We set up a time to meet and talk a little more and it seemed to work out okay, and started dating from there.
How do you juggle two very high profile and very demanding careers with teenage children?
In large part, it’s all communication. He has on his schedule when I’m on call or when I’m out of town, as I have his on mine, you know, when he’s going to be out of town. We certainly had to have good help, but we’ve been able to coordinate our schedules so that most of the time we’re able to do family dinners four times in a week. We’re not getting involved with three or four activities at the same time. You have to pick your activities. It’s much easier to maintain a routine if you’re not bouncing around to three different activities in a week.
You were a working mom when your daughters were born?
I was already fairly established. I had been in practice at the university for about seven years when I had the first one and 11 years when I had the second one. Now they are 14 and 10 years old.
Have your daughters talked about following in Mom’s footsteps?
Sometimes they give me options, like do you want me to do this, do you want me to find someone to come and stay with you, or do you want to come with me to the office in the hospital? They jump on that idea of coming in. I’m not so sure what their true level of interest is because they know well where the snacks are and where the best place to hang out is, and they get treated pretty well. My 14-year-old has called me a few times when she’s had friends over to the house and ask, “So mom, are you in surgery?” or “Are you delivering a baby?” It’s almost like she never asks me that question when you’re by yourself.
You bring life into this world every day. Tell me about that moment seeing that happen and the impact it has on you.
It’s always exciting and fascinating to watch and be a part of the process. Things have certainly changed how we deliver today versus the more medicalized nature of 20 years ago. Fortunately it’s more of a routine now, putting the baby up on mom’s belly, which is what I’ve been doing for a number of years, and getting Dad involved in the process. My pulse still races every time it happens.
Is there a moral dilemma or a moment that was difficult for you?
There are certain times where during situations where mom is sick and baby is on the cusp of viability, trying to balance getting mom far enough along for the benefit of the baby so that baby can get development inside as much as possible. There are times where you’re delivering and you realize mom’s prognosis is not the greatest. If I can let her see the baby and let her hold the baby that helps. There have been times when we’ve delivered moms who were in the ICU, not seeing what’s going on.
You have delivered more than 10,000 babies during your career, but you’ve also helped deliver several primates at Busch Gardens. How exciting!
To be honest, it kind of fell in my lap. There was an orthopedist who was checking on an arthritic gorilla and they asked him if he knew any GYNs that might be interested in helping out. I said yes. You do routine reproductive exams on gals, kind of check them and make sure everything’s okay. We started with the gorillas and evaluated a couple of orangutans and evaluated some of the chimps. The orangutans were actually the first ones to get pregnant and everything seemed to be going great when she went into labor. She pushed for 36 hours and I said we’ve got to do something. We didn’t know if the baby was dead or alive, but it turned out that the baby was alive and she was fully dilated but she just couldn’t get going. If they were in the wild, both mom and the baby would have died.
How different is it delivering animal babies versus human babies?
It’s interesting to hear just the differences between the orangutans and the gorillas let alone what differences there might be between the gorillas and humans. Once you shave the belly and put the drapes on it looks remarkably similar.
You have been very visible in the community. Where did the idea for the Annual Community Service Day grow?
When I became the assistant vice president at USF, one of the things that I was looking to do was find opportunities to help mentor the female faculty and expand their abilities for promotion. I happened to be reading in the paper that Hillsborough County Schools had started an all-girls and all-boys public middle schools. I thought this was a great opportunity to have our women faculty members come and do a community service day at the all-girls school so that the young middle school girls could see that they could be a doctor or a nurse or different things in public health. We met with some people and put on our first career day. The faculty and students loved it. The next year, the administrators said the boy’s school really needed mentors too. I called one of my male colleagues and asked if he was willing to oversee the program at the boys’ school. He was a little skeptical at first. I was like, just go check it out. He came back after a couple of hours, and put on a pretty phenomenal day and I added to the girls school event. We brought in people in different police divisions and MacDill sent two female fighter pilots, a biotechnician, a chaplain and others. We brought in a variety of people from the community and let these kids see the opportunities out there, especially with STEM subjects and getting girls interested in math and science and sticking with it.
How important is moving the medical school to downtown Tampa?
The presence of the medical school downtown is going to bring in a vibrant crowd which is going to be able to support more restaurants, shops and boutiques. For our students and faculty, it could be so close to our permanent teaching hospital. I think it’s going to help us really recruit and keep some of our brightest and best across Florida and throughout the country.
What do you wish your legacy to be known for?
I hope to accomplish, certainly in terms of my daughters, that they’ll look back and say Mom did what she loved and it made a difference in a number of people’s lives. I hope people can say they got something they can really use from me to help them to further their career. Sometimes those are just little tidbits and you don’t even realize that somebody remembers years later. Right now I’m the only female full professor in obstetrics and gynecology, and currently we are below the national averages in terms of how many women we have in higher ranks. I’m one who has the ability to say that I made a difference in that and I am able to get people to realize that women can and should go forward in career advancement. I have a platform to help elevate our voices and help support and encourage other women.
By Katherine Ferrara Johnson
Styling by Sandra D, Makeup by Ginny Dworchak, Photography by David Hart. Attire: Dress by Ellen Tracy; Necklace by Aldo.