A career in surgery can be both demanding and rewarding. For Drs. Seemal Mumtaz and Alexandra Kharazi, both cardiovascular surgeons affiliated with the Burr Heart & Vascular Center at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, a surgical career offers a stimulating environment where they can use their unique skill set to improve the lives of others.
Here, the two doctors share their perspectives on building and sustaining a career in medicine and what they most appreciate about their work.
What motivated you to become a surgeon?
Mumtaz: I like to solve problems and I love interacting with people. I realized that becoming a physician would allow me to do both.
Kharazi: My ultimate motivation was my desire to contribute to my community. In college, I volunteered at a Veterans Administration hospital. It was at this time that my road to medicine began, where I discovered the joy of working with providers, such as doctors and other hospital personnel.
What do you most appreciate about your work?
Mumtaz: I appreciate the teamwork of being in the operating room (OR). When I am in the OR, my focus is only on the patient and it is where I feel a state of flow. Nothing else matters except taking care of the problem of that patient.
Kharazi: As a surgeon, when people are very sick, I am able to help them by using my knowledge and skills to fix a concrete problem. For instance, I can evaluate whether they need a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) or any other surgery within my specialty. Being able to fix a physical problem allows me to help patients return to their communities and families so that they can continue to be involved in what they care about.
Do you feel women in your particular field are well-represented?
Mumtaz: There is a dearth of women cardiothoracic surgeons around the world. The United States is ahead of the game. I was the 254th female cardiothoracic surgeon to be board certified since 1961.
Kharazi: Looking at the statistics, historically women have not been as well-represented. However, I think the census of women’s representation in cardiovascular surgery is improving as we see more mentors — both male and female — encouraging better representation, as well as a positive shift in the culture and attitudes within surgery.
Did you have to face any obstacles in your career path? If so, how did you overcome them?
Mumtaz: Some teachers and colleagues recommended against a career in surgery due to its demands. However, once they saw my passion for surgery, they were able to teach me as they would teach a man aspiring to be a surgeon. It definitely takes resilience and grit to overcome these hurdles and keep my eye on the prize of being a surgeon.
Kharazi: Anyone going into medicine faces obstacles. But what unites us, regardless of our background, is that we are traveling the same path and trying to overcome the same struggles. Struggles such as going from learning new things and concepts in medicine to actually applying them in a real situation.
How do you balance work and your personal life?
Mumtaz: It definitely takes a lot of effort. I am grateful to have family and friends who understand that I may have to skip out on plans at the last minute. But I still plan on activities and try to make the most of the time I can spend with family. Having good partners and associates is a bonus, because they understand the need for work-life balance, so I am able to schedule my vacation time on important birthdays and anniversaries.
Kharazi: I am fortunate to have family support. My work requires a lot of time away from home when I am with my patients, whether in the operating room or clinic. Having a spouse and other loved ones who understand the demands of my job and fully support me 100% makes a huge difference.
What advice would you give to those forging a career in cardiovascular medicine?
Kharazi: It takes commitment and also realizing it takes patience — being able to take things one step at a time to reach your goals. It is a privilege to be able to help people in the most vulnerable moments of their lives. Along the way, if you are feeling rewarded and validated, then the journey, regardless of how challenging, is completely worth it.
Mumtaz: It’s extremely gratifying and humbling. As a physician, the way you see life up close is remarkable. You have to love what you do. You touch people’s hearts. You touch their lives.