Stanford Children’s Health Celebrates Women’s History Month: Enjoy the Journey

This is the final part of a monthlong series in honor of Women’s History Month.

Throughout the month of March, we want to celebrate some of the outstanding women at Stanford Children’s Health who make such a difference for our patients—and the community at large. In this Q&A, each of these women shares the story of how she came to her profession, how it’s changed, challenges she faced along the way, and some of the issues she’s passionate about.

Elisabeth Martin, MD, co-directs the Pediatric Bloodless Cardiac Surgery Program at Stanford Children’s Health. She is one of the few female pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons in the country. Raji Koppolu, NP, is a pediatric nurse practitioner who provides clinical care to general surgery patients. She leads several programs to support the professional development of advanced practice providers (APPs), including the development of a postgraduate APP Fellowship Program. She is proud to celebrate 18 years of working at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

Q. How did you choose this field, and what are some of the key events that helped shape your career and enable you to reach your position today?

Elisabeth Martin: It was halfway through my medical training in Montréal, Canada, that I luckily was introduced to cardiac surgery. I was in the operating room doing an anesthesia training rotation during a plastic surgery day. Apparently, I didn’t look too excited about the case, so the anesthesiologist wanted to show me a different operating room … and ta-da! I saw the heart beating and knew what I wanted to do. Thereafter, my blinds were placed, and I kept working toward a residency position in cardiac surgery. I became fascinated by the reconstructive procedures and the complex physiology of pediatric and congenital heart surgery. My mentors throughout my training were very supportive and wanted me to really choose the subspecialty that would make me happy. I am forever grateful for their advice. I still keep in touch with them!

Raji Koppolu: From a young age, I knew that I wanted to work with children. I am continually amazed by their resiliency and strength. When I studied abroad in college, I saw an amazing exhibit about nursing and its impact on health and health care at the International Red Cross Museum in Geneva, Switzerland. When I returned, I did a volunteer program in New York City which provided college students exposure to a variety of diverse health care disciplines. I met a pediatric nurse practitioner who worked on a pediatric oncology unit and loved the holistic role she played in direct patient care, family support, and education. I was inspired to pursue a career in advanced practice pediatric nursing, as I felt it was a perfect match between my interest in science and connecting with people.

There are many moments I reflect on which shaped my career. First, the patients and families I work with teach me so much about their lived experiences, challenges, and successes. The children I care for truly motivate me to do better each day. Second, I am fortunate to be surrounded by a diverse team of health care professionals whose unique skills help support children and families to receive the highest-quality, evidence-based, and comprehensive care. Third, I am involved locally, regionally, and nationally in initiatives to support not only pediatric health care but also the nursing profession. It’s very empowering to be a part of strategies to support child health and well-being at a broader systems level.

Q. What changes have you seen in your field over the years?

Martin: There has clearly been an increase in female surgical residents and trainees. At baseline, surgical subspecialties in general are quite male-dominated, and cardiothoracic surgery is certainly no different. It is estimated from various surveys and studies that approximately 5 percent of the American surgical workforce in this field are women. I can probably count on my hand the number of female cardiac surgery attendings that I have met over the past few years. I am happy to see that female colleagues are paving the way for those in training. There is also an increased awareness regarding inequalities or biases associated with gender. The surgical community is definitely moving in the right direction to promote diversity and a supportive work environment.

Koppolu: There have been many notable changes in pediatric health care and the advanced practice pediatric nursing profession over recent years. These changes have been particularly brought to the forefront due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are witnessing an unprecedented number of children and adolescents who are struggling with mental health disorders. We have an important responsibility to ensure that we continue to provide support for children and adolescents to learn effective and healthy coping skills to cope with life’s stressors and have a positive quality of life to function well at home, at school, and in the community. We continue to examine health disparities in children and the impact which social determinants of health have on children, especially those with chronic conditions. Our care of children needs to take these factors in account in optimizing their short- and long-term health outcomes. We need to ensure we develop a future pipeline of providers who are interested in working in pediatrics. It’s an extremely rewarding profession, which I hope youth and young adults are introduced to early on and pursue. I also hope that our professional roles better mirror the diversity of children we care for.

Q. What advice do you have for women in your field who are at the early stage of their career?

Martin: Despite the challenges associated with a long medical and surgical training to become a pediatric and congenital heart surgeon, the adventure is absolutely worth it. I don’t regret a single minute of it. It’s a bumpy journey with various roadblocks, with ups and downs. However, I am privileged to get the opportunity to improve the life of so many children and adults. It is incredibly rewarding. You can do it!

Koppolu: Practicing in health care demands that we are innovative, flexible, and persistent advocates. I would advise young women who are in the early stages of their career to continue to invest in building relationships with those around them. Find personal and trusted professional mentors that you can speak to and share your journey. They will provide the encouragement and gentle nudges to push you further. I find journaling to be very helpful to reflect on new experiences, process challenges, and celebrate great days. I would also advise young women to have grace and patience in the process. I’ve learned so much from every experience I’ve had as a clinician, educator, manager, and leader. Be open to new experiences, and challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone. It’s often those experiences which really mold us as professionals and provide lifelong lessons. Keep working hard, accept the ups and downs, and enjoy each step of the journey.

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