WOMEN IN MEDICINE
Alissa Shulman, MD
Chief of the Surgery, Sarasota Memorial Hospital
Board Certified Plastic Surgeon, Sovereign Plastic Surgery
She may turn a few heads with her shocking pink stripe painted in her cropped brunette hair, but being different and creative is nothing new for Dr. Alissa Shulman, 48. A self-described rebel, she always saw things differently growing up, especially when it came to her creative side and love of medicine. Drawing by age two and sewing by age four, she also loved to make her own clothes. Shulman credits her mother with not only encouraging her artistry, but also showing her girls could do anything they wanted – even become doctors.
That perspective served Shulman well through her medical career. She devised her own path to medical school while attending undergraduate school, crafting a new dual-major that embraced her love of art and anatomy. After completing her residency, she joined a thriving plastic surgery practice in the Midwest that would ultimately become a life-changing decision for her. As the go-to reconstructive breast surgeon in Sarasota since 2008, Shulman is a vocal and visible advocate for breast cancer awareness with her pink hair. This year, Shulman has even more reason to stand out in the male dominated plastic surgery field. She’s the first woman to be named as Chief of the Surgery Department and Section Chief of Plastic Surgery at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. She’s also taking on a larger role in the medical community, serving as President of the Sarasota County Medical Society and on the board of direction for the Florida State Society of Plastic Surgery. Despite her busy schedule she credits multitasking and her staff scheduling to allow her to spend her time with her husband, Bill Edwards, and two daughters, Ayla and Mallory. Here, in her own words, Shulman describes how she was able to thrive in the boys’ network of medicine and how some hard lessons helped her build a successful practice in Sarasota.
You found your love of medicine through art and sculpture. How did that happen?
I wanted to go into medicine since I was four-years old. My art, drawing and sculpting started with my original first drawing at age two. According to my mom, I was drawing recognizable pictures at two or two-and-a-half. When I was four, I told my mom I wanted to be a nurse. She goes, “Well, why don’t you want to be a doctor?” I said, “Well girls are nurses and boys are doctors.” I was already thinking that. She said to me, “No, you can be whatever you want.”
As a child you enjoyed the tactile experience of working with your hands. How did that lead to medicine?
My dad drew. You can kind of see that back there, but my mom cultivated it. She was always encouraging me to do whatever I enjoyed. I could never get enough drawing supplies, but she always made sure I had plenty of supplies for drawing and arts and crafts. I could not get enough of sewing and sculpting. I remember the first stuffed animal I sewed at age four, and the first skirt I made at age five because they were just so significant. The whole time I just assumed I could be an artist and a doctor. Early in high school, I got a chance to volunteer at an externship in surgery. It just happened to be when I was observing a plastic surgery and I was like “wow, that’s really beautiful.” He was making breasts so he and I started talking about how we loved art and how he went to art school. I said to myself: that’s me! I love to sculpt and I knew then I was going to be a surgeon.
So how did you combine art and medicine during your undergrad years at SUNY Buffalo?
The State University of New York system is huge, and they let you make up your own major if you have enough reason to do it. I entered as a Fine Arts major but then I made up a major I would call Form and Function. I threw in the art and anatomy, and whatever I thought might be pertinent. I studied how the body moved with dance, I took jewelry design and a lot of anatomy classes. When I graduated, I received two diplomas: Form and Function, and other in Sculpture for Fine Arts. If someone wanted to take that major it still exists. While I was the only one with this major, I was in the honors program. We had this giant group of like-minded people, kind of like a little Pine View, which was nice because we all had such different interests.
Besides your mom, who were some of your mentors?
Clyde Herreid was an Evolutionary Biologist. He was also a magician and a ventriloquist and my mentor. I actually met him in high school because I had another program where I got to do some research. His research was on cockroaches and tarantulas, and he was pure science but he made it so much fun. He taught evolution, so he would dress up as Charles Darwin to teach the class. He liked for people to think outside the box.
How hard was it to study art and medicine at the same time in school?
I was definitely the fish out of water there because I wasn’t a pure artist; I was a scientist and an artist. Most of the time they were trying to get me to work on my art abstractly and I kept wanting to be very exact. My only “B” grade was in Art class because my teacher did not like my style – it was very subjective. They would take away my supplies and make me draw with finger paints. It’s because they wanted me to be an artist.
An art class actually inspired your design for company logo. When did that happen?
While I was in medical school, one of my best friends was in Sarasota working as an artist’s model for the Ringling School. Just for fun I asked if I could sit in on some drawing classes. I got to keep those drawings and one of them ended up being a very quick sketch that I turned into my logo 20-years later. My friend still lives in Sarasota so she gets to see herself all over the place. I chose the name Sovereign, which means royalty and the logo depicts a feminine body.
You did some modeling during school that helped you gain perspective on plastic surgery. What did you learn?
I knew that if I could get into the minds of people who wanted to be beautiful, it would help me understand a little bit better. They look at different angles, they look at different levels of perfection; different types of beauty. It definitely helped being a plus sized model. You have to be able to see the beauty of different sizes, not just the classic stick figure. I’m always going to be plus-sized. I think that my contemporaries don’t quite understand that not everyone has to be a size two. You just need to be healthy. I don’t want to be a size 22 but a size 14 or 16 isn’t the worst if you’re healthy and you’re proportional. You see lots of women who feel bad at size two versus someone who feels great at size 12. It really is about how healthy you are, and your attitude, and just feeling better.
You fought against conformity in a field known for its rigorous standards and rules. How did you rebel against that?
I would hide out in a couple of the creative classes every so often, and still went dancing twice a week at the dance clubs. There weren’t a whole lot of medical school students there. This was back when you were a club kid or you’re a Goth kid before the stereotypical names, and I worked very hard for those titles. I wasn’t going to give those up just for med school. I actually had to give them up for residency. That was a little bit of an eye-opener. You could not stay up all night dancing and be ready for residency. I tried! I really thought the first week I was going to do that.
You landed at a very successful practice in the Midwest. but you describe the experience as a defining point in your life. Why?
I was in Indiana for about nine years and got tired of the Midwest and the abuse of a dominating boss who owned the practice. When I started there, it looked like a nice place. I was busy immediately and very popular. I didn’t know that I should have read a little bit more about being an employed plastic surgeon. I had restrictive covenants and I couldn’t really control what I made, and basically I was working like a dog for nothing. Every time I would come up for partnership, I was distracted by getting married or trying to have kids. He got away with everything he shouldn’t have gotten away with because I wanted to do all these other things.
But a visit to your friend in Sarasota changed your perspective. What happened?
My friend, Dr. Kristen Paulus, said we don’t have anyone like you down here. I was like, really? This is Florida with a million plastic surgeons, but not many females that do reconstruction. I was about half-way through my pregnancy with my second child; I found out it was going to be a girl, and I’m like, that’s it, I can’t be a doormat anymore. I’m going to raise two daughters. I can’t show them that I’m a doormat. If I’m going to start over, they’re both babies, they’re not going to know that I struggled. You start again from nothing.
What were those first couple of months like for you and your family starting over?
You start here from nothing. You hire your mom to be your office manager who won’t take any money from you, and you just work hard with a very small office. You do all the jobs you can yourself. I’m my own nurse. I do my own scheduling. My mom had to learn how to be an office manager. In the first six months I had my five-month old baby in the office with me because I was still nursing and I didn’t have any patients. My mom and I made muffins and went door-to-door to different offices and said this is what I do if you might need my services. I brought my picture book. I knew from my previous job that the general surgeons with breast cancer need you to be accessible. They need you to be convenient because they’ve got to coordinate two doctors’ schedules.
What challenges did you face as a woman in the male-dominated medical field?
My year for general surgery there were nine residents and six were female. It was a fluke. They literally pulled us aside and said this is off the books. Do not get pregnant. Unfortunately, because how intense general surgery is, only one of those women truly finished. Two of us left a year early because it’s such an intense, good ol’ boy, abusive program. You were just yelled at and brow beaten on a daily basis. You were on call 24-hours, off call 24-hours. It was constant. It was just physically and mentally abusive.
How did you meet your husband, Bill? We met at a dance club the week before I started my residency. I told him I was a doctor in the beginning. Had I not been trying to be the club kid, I wouldn’t have met anybody. He was actually an electrician when I met him.
Bill is a stay-at-home dad but he also works for you. How do you balance your relationship?
My husband is very supportive. He was in the middle of earning his master’s degree when we had our first daughter, and he just decided he didn’t want anyone else raising the girls. He also helps with marketing at the office. I don’t ever have to worry about if I’m going to be home late. He’s a great stay-at-home dad.
How do you build a strong relationship with your patients?
I spend a lot of time talking with them before I even look at them. We start off with, what are you here for? I need to know what bothers you more than anything, and then we’ll go from there, which I think is worth the surgery to help you. I spend most of my time learning how to say no because saying yes is easy. Sometimes there are medical conditions that would warrant me to say no to the patient, or their tissue isn’t very good. I think what they’re asking for is exactly what they should be asking for, then I’ll tell them that’s completely appropriate. This is what this surgery was designed for.
We hear a lot of misconceptions about beauty, especially in society today. How do you set realistic expectations about plastic surgery?
I try to tone down those misconceptions of perfect beauty. If you really want the perfect skin, your damage may have been done 20 years ago. Stay healthy, keep your muscles toned — there are so many different ideas of what healthy is. As we get older, if we want to get down to our college weight, we’re probably going to be losing too much weight and going to look gaunt in your face. I tend to go for smaller breasts rather than larger breasts. I think lifted and smaller looks better, especially as we age. I’m not anti-implants. If you’ve got enough tissue to just make them a perky B, and you’re okay with a perky B, and it doesn’t have to be a C implant. It’ll look a lot prettier than an implant, which is just going to weigh you down. I love fat graphing. Take some fat where you don’t want it and put it right in the cleavage.
How do you define success at the end of the day?
A family that doesn’t get mad at me for getting home late all the time. My kids who love me and are still happy to be around me most of the time. If your patients are happy, that’s all that matters. Even one unhappy patient, you lose sleep, or if your patient is having problems, infections or complications. Until I’ve seen the patient and they’re okay and getting better, I’m on edge.
What is one piece of advice you would give new medical students?
Find one thing in common with every patient: male or female, it doesn’t matter. I swim and dive with some of my patients. I met one when we were halfway through a reconstruction and she finally told me she was a sculptor too. She brought in her artwork for me to see.
How do you find balance in your day?
I have a really great supporting staff that can block me off for an hour so I can go to my daughters’ school events. I try to get my work done as quickly as I can so when I walk in the door, the kids are going to be glued to me. I work out after they go to sleep. I’ll get up extra early to come into the office and get some work done.
How do you plan to use your new leadership positions to help other women physicians?
Mostly I try not to distinguish it as being female. I just want to be a good plastic surgeon, not just a good female plastic surgeon. It’s like we fought so hard to be equal. If we keep fighting to be separate, it’s a little backwards. I’m pretty much one of the guys in surgery. I try to make sure my colleagues realize it’s really important that you are female but don’t rub it in their faces. They can’t miss it! I’ve got pink hair and I occasionally wear high heels and makeup. Girls can have fun. I use being female as kind of a secret weapon because you still have to be one of the guys in this kind of community.