Setting Boundaries, Demanding Equity Give STS Member Edge in the Face of Loss

STS News, Winter 2022 — Amidst personal suffering, one STS member’s introspection allowed her to prioritize what she needs from her career and her life—and to recognize that her talent gives her the leverage to say so.

Sharon Ben-Or, MD, a thoracic surgeon specializing in robotics at the University of Kansas Health System (UKHS) in Kansas City, Kansas, recalls feeling her plans and goals slipping from her grasp when she received a breast cancer diagnosis in 2017. It was detected on her first mammogram—ever—at age 40, and she’d set it up with a radiologist friend. It was this friend who delivered the news.

Dr. Ben-Or completed her final chemotherapy session on December 11, 2017.

Thus began a cycle of surgery, complications, and chemotherapy, during which Dr. Ben‑Or returned to work intermittently, then at Greenville Health System in South Carolina. Understandably, her illness contributed to strained relationships with friends and family, though she was sometimes surprised at which individuals were supportive and which were not.

Over the course of her treatment and recovery, Dr. Ben-Or found herself growing weary of the “You’ve got this!” attitude she encountered from her loved ones and health care providers. She discovered that what she needed wasn’t toxic positivity and cheerleading, but for her peers to understand that the process was painful, exhausting, and fraught with grief. Ultimately, she articulated this to her surgeon.

“I realized that I resented him,” Dr. Ben-Or said. “And what I needed was for him to acknowledge that, yeah, this does suck. When I admitted that to him, he respected it and thanked me for telling him.”

That admission was a milestone move in a series of assertions, through which Dr. Ben-Or found that she has the prerogative to dictate what she will and will not accept in the course of her professional and personal life.

What she did accept was her current position at UKHS in January 2021. She was “aggressively recruited” by her former attending surgeon, Nirmal K. Veeramachaneni, MD, who emphasized that he’d wanted her to join his team for years.

In January 2021, Dr. Ben-Or joined the UKHS team, accepting the position on her own terms.

Armed with the knowledge that she was in high demand, Dr. Ben-Or negotiated a contract that made her expectations clear—allowing for flexibility should she need to take time away for her health, as well as to welcome an adopted child, a process she started in 2020.

The team at UKHS maintains what they call a “break your hip fund,” Dr. Ben-Or explained. “The surgeons put their money in a kind of slush fund, so that if someone requires medical leave we’re able to compensate for that. We also had a long conversation about reproductive issues and taking time off for parental leave, and the departmental stance on that was great.”

She recalls feeling for the first time that she wasn’t being interviewed, but that she was interviewing the institution, and that sense of being “wanted” gave her influence.

“I made that clear before I signed the contract,” she said. “It’s just a job. There’s no emotionality to it—I don’t have a problem saying no.”

The first US-born member of her family, Dr. Ben-Or is the daughter of a Mexican concert pianist and an Israeli veteran who carved out a business niche in electronics stores. She discovered her knack for medicine while keeping her uncle company on a ski trip as he studied for the MCAT.

Growing up in Baltimore and training in Philadelphia, she experienced a unique melting pot of cultures, but until she joined the Greenville staff those experiences were distinctly Northern. She’s since had her share of adjustment to lingering cultural perceptions.

“I’ve been fired by patients because they don’t want a female surgeon; I’ve had a patient tell me I’m going to hell because I’m Jewish. And when it comes to time off, the concept of ‘parental leave’ isn’t widely accepted—only maternity leave,” she said.

Dr. Ben-Or’s renewed empathy for patients manifests in moments such as “prescribing” a puppy.

But with the vast majority of procedures she performs being lobectomies for lung cancer, Dr. Ben-Or has had unique opportunities to connect more deeply. “I’m from the North, so I don’t know how to bless your heart,” she said. “And I don’t always tell patients I’ve had cancer, but with some I do share because it helps them take the next step in healing. I may not understand exactly what they’re going through, but I can acknowledge the feelings of fear, anger, and loss of control, and treat them the way I wanted to be treated when I got my diagnosis.”

In addition to her OR duties and her interest in outcomes research, Dr. Ben-Or dedicates time to teaching medical students and residents about burnout, work/life balance, the doctor-patient relationship, and gender inequity.

In March, she will be a guest on the STS “Same Surgeon, Different Light” podcast, in which she shares her personal and professional insights with host David Tom Cooke, MD (see page 2).

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