By AMY GEISZLER-JONES
KU School of Medicine - Wichita
Named after the first woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree, the Blackwell Club — created by a KU School of Medicine-Wichita general surgery residency alumna — is providing peer support and education for female surgical residents and attending physicians that often can’t be found in the classroom or the operating room.
Lindsay Strader, D.O., initially started the club in 2020 to help fight the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was sort of going through some burnout, as a lot of health professionals were during the COVID-19 pandemic, and really just needed a creative outlet to kind of work through some of that,” said Strader, a colorectal surgeon with Wichita Surgical Specialists since 2015 and a 2014 graduate of the KU School of Medicine-Wichita General Surgery Residency Program.
Given the female focus of the group, Strader named the club after Elizabeth Blackwell in recognition of the first woman to earn a medical degree in America. The British-born Blackwell graduated first in her class in 1849 from Geneva College in rural New York. Historical reports say her acceptance letter was intended as a practical joke.
While there is a socializing aspect to the Blackwell Club, which initially met on Zoom, the meetings always have an educational focus, from negotiating contracts or finding ways to address burnout to the higher rates of infertility among female surgeons and finding ways to breastfeed while juggling a surgical career.
Twenty-three women, of which 13 are resident physicians, are part of the Blackwell Club.
Strader, who handles all aspects of the club from securing hosts among the attending physicians to researching the topics, said it’s the kind of education that she wishes had been available when she was a resident.
“While I originally started it to find community and female support … there are some things that we really need to discuss more among women like negotiating contracts or finding a mentor that seem to come more naturally to men. And then there are things specific to women,” said Strader, who earned her medical degree from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences and completed a colon and rectal surgery fellowship at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
One of the upcoming Blackwell Club meetings, for example, will focus on the ergonomics of surgical tools since some manufacturers still make tools based on the ergonomics of the male hand.
“It’s a good way to learn about other topics that aren’t covered in our training,” agreed Grace Crouch, M.D., who is in her final year of residency. Initially, she was drawn to the club to experience what she called “female fellowship.”
“There tend to be so many guys in surgery and so many of our attendings are guys so it’s nice to have a female group to hang out with and build connections with,” she said.
Of the 35 residents in the KU School of Medicine-Wichita general surgery program, 13 are women; of the program’s 48 faculty members, eight are women.
The Blackwell Club meetings have also covered topics that can help physicians deliver better patient care.
“One of the meetings that stood out the most for me was a meeting we had on human trafficking and how to recognize it in patients,” said Crouch, who grew up on a farm about 30 miles northwest of Wichita and finished her medical degree at KU School of Medicine-Wichita. “It was eye-opening, and the very same week, if not the next day, I saw a patient who had all of these warning signs.”
Third-year resident Kristina Fraser, M.D., said it’s been valuable to hear the attendings talk about dealing with physician burnout, discrimination and setting healthy boundaries.
“Seeing women who I look up to get vulnerable and talk about these things that are difficult — that has been awesome for me to know that when I feel these things all these amazing women who are strong and influential have also gone through them,” said Fraser, a Houston native who earned her medical degree at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
During one meeting, where the topic included finding ways to do things that spark joy, Fraser recalled how much she had loved dancing since age 2 and even did competitive dance until college.
“Hopefully, when I have more control over my schedule, I can get back to consistently taking dance classes,” Fraser said.
Fraser, who handles the social media pages for the general surgery residency program, said she thinks the Blackwell Club is a bonus for female surgery residents at KU School of Medicine-Wichita.
“I look at social media from other residencies, and … there aren't very many (programs) that have organized societies or clubs for women residents, at least that people post about,” Fraser said. “So, it's definitely a unique aspect of our residency program, I think, and of Wichita’s community of surgeons, which is really tight-knit.”