Karen B. Zur, MD, Chief of the Division of Otolaryngology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, discusses her entry into medicine, barriers she’s faced during her career, why diversity in medicine matters and what medical leaders can do to make the field more welcoming to all. Dr. Zur is also Director of the Pediatric Voice Program and Associate Director of the Center for Pediatric Airway Disorders.
Q: When did you know you wanted to become a doctor?
A: I knew I wanted to become a doctor in 10th grade. A family friend’s 7-year-old son suffered a boating accident and required emergency brain surgery. I got to meet his pediatric neurosurgeon in the recovery room, and I was in awe. Up until then I was planning on becoming a professional ballet dancer, so this was a significant shift in plans. He invited me to observe him perform a brain aneurysm repair – I spent all day with him in the operating room. My pathway to becoming a physician was set.
Q: What barriers did you face?
A: I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from college and go to medical school. In high school, I had my mind set to become a professional ballet dancer, so the concept of becoming a surgeon was novel, and I knew I had a long road ahead – with no guidance from family.
One of the science teachers in my performing arts high school introduced me to her daughter, who was a student at Harvard University. We met for a dinner that I will remember forever: She was the first Black woman I knew who was at an Ivy League university.
Language was another barrier for me. I was also new to the country back then, having moved to Miami for 9th grade. I worked very hard to get into Yale University for my undergraduate studies and was fortunate to have tremendous support from my teachers and parents.
Financial barriers were looming when my father got sick at the beginning of my senior year of college. My future at Yale – and then medical school – was in jeopardy, but I had excellent support from my mentor in the lab where I did research, and from my mother, who’s been a rock for me all these years. I was allowed to graduate and received financial aid.
Getting into medical school was not a breeze. Despite attending an Ivy League university, my standardized test scores were not so stellar with English not being my first language. However, Stephen G. Waxman, MD, PhD, my lab mentor and the chairman of the neurology department at Yale saw my potential and advocated on my behalf. I was accepted to Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
As a member of the first medical school class to be composed of 50% women, I encountered biases for being a young female. I vividly recall a conversation in the operating room with one surgeon who told me that instead of medicine, I should be “spritzing perfume at Neiman Marcus.” Another attending let me know that surgery is not for women and I should become a psychiatrist.
Thankfully, I had a good head on my shoulders, and I was determined to become a surgeon. I was fortunate to match at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Otolaryngology residency – one of the most challenging programs in the U.S. at the time. I was the only female resident in a long time.
Being a young female in an operating room at that time was not common. I recall one attending admitting that he did not know how to behave around me in the OR and would apologize anytime he made an off-color comment or used a crude word. I really did not mind. I was there to learn to become a surgeon. I had my mission and goal (and grit to survive this program which I am grateful to have graduated from!)
I was fortunate to work with an excellent team of residents who were supportive, incredible attendings, and finally meeting a female ENT surgeon during my 4th year of residency allowed me to have more mentorship and a female role-model which I found to be important.
These possible barriers were also motivators, and I clearly turned out OK. I had great mentors, champions, colleagues, friends and leaders who saw something in me and helped guide my career.
I just delivered my Presidential address for the American Broncho-Esophagological Association (ABEA) and had the opportunity to reflect on my life and career so far. I have been blessed with opportunity and meeting the right people at the right time of my life.
Q: Is CHOP a welcoming place for surgeons from under-represented categories? How?
A: I believe the environment at CHOP is friendly and welcoming, even in a surgical specialty that’s traditionally ‘cutthroat’ and intimidating. I was hired by William P. “Bill” Potsic, MD, out of fellowship, and he brought me to Philadelphia to start a Voice Program at CHOP, which he supported and guided. Fifteen years later, we have four female surgeons in a group of 16 – a steadily growing group that I feel is proportionate to the rise in females graduating from medical schools.
Our surgical leadership, particularly N. Scott Adzick, MD, MMM, FACS, FAAP, is supportive of underrepresented groups and has demonstrated this by hiring surgeons and leaders who are diverse in background, experience and thought.
Q: Why is it important to see more diversity in the ranks of pediatric surgery?
A: I believe it is important to see more diversity in the ranks of pediatric surgery for a few reasons:
- To serve as role models for the incoming generations of trainees. It is the opportunity for high school students, college and medical students to be inspired and to emulate those who look or think like themselves – hopefully attracting more diversity in future physicians.
- It is important for our families and patients to see surgeons that are like them as well. I believe it provides comfort and pride.
- Diversity amongst colleagues also opens our own eyes to unconscious biases and to learn about our patients and communities. Without the diversity, we would have no progress.
Q: What can leaders do to make the surgical field more welcoming and representative?
A: To make the surgical field more welcoming and representative, I believe leaders need to provide opportunities for students and trainees. Opportunities for mentorship, shadowing and research. Outreach to teens who may have the talent, but no guidance or means to educate them about opportunities for financial aid and guidance about schooling and extracurricular activities.
For example, one day in clinic I saw a Black patient from West Philadelphia with his mom. He asked appropriate questions and was clearly intelligent. I asked him about his future goals, and he told me that after getting an engineering degree he would love to become a neurosurgeon. He had the spark – but he has no mentor in medicine. I offered to put him in touch with the CHOP talent office and reached out to our neurosurgical colleagues to see if there are some shadowing opportunities for him.
Q: What is your top piece of advice to female and minority medical students who are interested in surgery?
A: My #1 piece of advice to female and minority medical students who are interested in surgery is to go for it! There is absolutely no reason not to pursue it if you have a genuine interest in being a proceduralist or surgeon. It is a tough road, and I believe there are surgical specialties that lend themselves nicely to more balance between work and life – which is ALWAYS going to be important.
Q: What’s one myth or misunderstanding about your field you’d want others to know?
A: One myth about the surgical field I’d like others to know is that surgeons are not all cut-throats (no pun intended). We are compassionate, dedicated, hard-working, and we also want to have successes outside of work such as raising a loving family.
Q: What is your favorite part about practicing medicine?
A: Much of what an otolaryngologist does involves medicine and trying to help with a diagnosis. I love figuring it out.
I take personal pride when my patient returns for postoperative visits and has improvement in their voice quality (as a laryngologist or voice surgeon), language, breathing and hearing.
I also love that I have long-term relationships with my patients and families, seeing some of my patients in the past 15½ years go on to graduate from college and pursue their dreams, as performers or cops or scientists.
Q: What is your favorite part about working at CHOP?
A: My favorite part about working at CHOP is the group of people who I call my family and colleagues. I take pride in our 16 surgeons, 33 advanced practice practitioners and a team that is around 100 people in total in our division. Our mission is to take excellent care of our patients and their families and, in the process, we also enjoy being in each other’s company. This notion was augmented during the COVID-19 pandemic; the rallying and teamwork our group displayed in the face of adversity are a reminder of this.
I also love training our students, residents and fellows. They are the future of our specialties and it is so important to nurture their skills and to ensure that they too, can become solid members of their teams.
I love that CHOP is in Philadelphia and serves a diverse community. When the beautiful Buerger building was opened in July 2015, I noticed the pride our patients displayed when they walked into the clinic and were in awe of the new space. We were still the same teams, the same clinicians, the same staff – but the place was elegant and special, and the families felt that as well. Every time I walk into our hospital, I have that same feeling of pride.
To learn more about Dr. Zur, her education and training or research interests, please see her staff biography.