Why this educator and surgeon doesn’t allow people to define her
Breast surgical oncologist Olutayo Sogunro shares her career journey as a surgeon and a Black female. She encourages future physicians not to be afraid of challenges.
This piece is part of our new series titled Spotlight, where we interview and shine a light on the educators, learners, and other Medmasterees who are doing amazing things in their communities around the world.
Our first guest is Olutayo Sogunro, one of our amazing teachers. She is a successful breast surgical oncologist at Johns Hopkins General Hospital and an assistant professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Olutayo describes herself as a surgeon who happens to be Black and who also happens to be a female. She is driven by an unconditional love for medicine and for teaching medical students. In this honest and heartfelt interview, she shares her professional and personal journey with us.
A dynamic career—from general surgery to breast surgical oncology
As it did for so many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic represented a period of reflection and self-discovery for Olutayo. After training in general surgery and then later transitioning into a residency in trauma and acute care, she was still searching for the specialty and practice setting that felt right. She determined that she wanted her future to be in the long-term care of patients, so she decided to make another career transition into breast surgical oncology. "In the acute care and trauma world ... I'm taking care of acute problems for patients, but not necessarily taking care of a patient throughout their lifetime, or several months or years. With a breast cancer patient, I'm not just taking care of them at one point in their life. I'm taking care of them for a period in their life."
In general surgery training and practice, Olutayo had already performed many breast surgeries, and the additional fellowship in breast surgical oncology helped her own the oncology aspect of her new role. "This transition was unique but also a really great experience," she says, "because breast cancer is a multidisciplinary disease. It's not just about surgery, and it's not just about medication. It's a combination of those things. It kind of all comes together in one field, and it's really great."
As a breast surgical oncologist, Olutayo takes care of her patients for extended periods and helps them live their best possible lives while fighting cancer. This disease can be successfully treated, but there's no quick fix. The road to recovery can be long and demanding for patients, their families, and significant others. "Breast cancer, and really any cancer, affects a lot of systems. It's a long road and a long battle. So, it really draws me into being able to be there during the longevity of the care of the patient and helping them see it from beginning to end."
Besides being a surgeon, Olutayo is also an assistant professor—another aspect of her job that she loves deeply. "I am most proud of the students and people that I've been able to teach in my short career thus far," she says. "I really love medicine, and I really love surgery, and I want other people to love it, too."
Fostering diversity in healthcare
Chatting with a surgeon who is also Black and female is an excellent opportunity to emphasize the importance of diversity in healthcare. When asked what advice she would give Black medical students, Olutayo replies, "The biggest thing that I really enjoy saying to young students and young females of color is 'Think of yourself as a person first'. I don't consider myself a Black female surgeon. I consider myself a surgeon who happens to be Black and who happens to be female. Because once you put that social construct as your definition for yourself, that is also how you allow other people to see you." In a world where we tend to label ourselves and others, it is important to define ourselves, decide who we want to be, and how we want to present ourselves. "If you don't define yourself, I promise you, someone else will define you for you," says Olutayo.
Unfortunately, many unintentional biases are still alive in our society. These could be linked to race, gender, sex, or other aspects of our identities. We must remember that we are all humans first. "All our blood bleeds the same color, right?" says Olutayo. "We have the same anatomy. We have the same number of bones. We have the same things that make us who we are—humans. You'll find that there are actually more commonalities [than differences]. So I think we have to put that ahead of those definitions that we create socially. Let's start off with defining all of us as humans and part of the same human race."
Fostering diversity also involves presenting future physicians with new role models more similar to themselves. Medical television dramas have helped develop the idea of multiculturalism and multiracialism in healthcare, but this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Growing up, Olutayo didn't know any Black doctors. "That affected my vision of what medicine and surgery looked like a little bit. It kind of made me feel like, 'Okay, I just got to keep working harder and harder and harder because I don't really see people that look like me.' " Nevertheless, Olutayo met some great mentors who helped her become the successful surgeon she is today. "I don't think, necessarily, that a mentor, a guidance counselor, or a sponsor has to look like you... Those people are really special in someone's life. They see past a lot of the gender, race, and really social limitations on success," says Olutayo. "When I was able to find those people that did look like me later on in my career, I cherished them so much more, but I also had a lot of support from people that don't look like me."
Another fundamental aspect of fostering diversity in healthcare is ensuring that medical providers erase disparities in the provision of services. Many patients actively seek physicians who share the same background. It could be because of their culture, race, gender, or religion. Whatever the reason, they feel better understood and cared for by physicians they can identify with. "Let's just take breast cancer," says Olutayo. "There are certain cultures where certain parts of the body are very private areas... Women may not want to go to a male doctor to [have] their breasts [examined], and male patients may not want to go to female doctors to examine certain areas. So I do think that how a patient identifies with themselves and identifies with their physician is really important."
Find a mentor and be open to sponsorship opportunities
As mentioned earlier, Olutayo relied on the guidance of great mentors throughout her career. "I think you develop mentors throughout your life," says Olutayo. "I have mentors from when I was in college. I developed mentors in medical school. I developed mentors in residency and even in practice." However, other people might also help you progress in your medical career, and these are the sponsors. "Mentorship is important, but it is as equally important as something called sponsorship," says Olutayo. "A lot of people don't realize the difference. So mentorship is having someone who helps advise you and guides you during your career path... A sponsor is going to put you in those situations that allow you to get there [your career goals]. So a sponsor, for example, is going to say 'Hey, I know a person that would be a great fit for this job.' And they're going to contact that person who's at that hospital or something and vouch for you on their behalf." Finding a sponsor requires you to excel in what you do and seize any opportunities to showcase your potential.
At times, juggling medical school, mentorship, and chasing a sponsorship can seem all-consuming. "There might be a responsibility someone asks you to do, for example, say, 'Can you take on a couple of medical students and teach them? Or can you teach this lecture?' " says Olutayo. "[You might think] I'm so busy, I don't have time for that. I barely have this, I barely have that. But that may be the test where a sponsor might see your work." It is important to remember that new opportunities can come our way from any direction.
Love your specialty and don’t be afraid of challenges
Olutayo's professional journey is a testimony to the fact that it is never too late to transition into a different career within the medical field. We asked her to share her best advice with Medmastery's learners. She says, "Do something that you love... It's very easy to choose something that might be shiny and bright and that you think... you're going to love because it's cool. But you have to remember this is going to be your life and your career... and honestly, if you don't [love it], then you pivot, then you change." She suggests researching and spending time with physicians in the specialty you want to pursue before making a decision. It might take some time, but this is the best way to understand whether you love that specialty and whether you will be happy doing that job every day for the rest of your life.
"Love what you do because it will be reflected in how you take care of patients," says Olutayo. "You want to wake up being excited to go do what you want to do and take care of the patients you want to take care of and the way you want to take care of them." If, after all the research and preparation, you still find out that the specialty you chose is not the right fit for you, that's okay too. You can always learn new clinical skills and transition into a different specialty.
"That's exactly what I did in my career," says Olutayo. Any career journey includes challenges, but it all boils down to how you face them. "When I was a lot younger, advisors tried to tell me that there was a certain limit to my potential," says Olutayo. "I had some people in the guidance counselor arena that said, 'o, you're not gonna be able to do that N, it's not possible, that's too hard for you.' A lot of it has to do with personality. I'm a go-getter, so I actually take that adversity and use it as inspiration. I was like, okay, all right. If you think I'm not going to do it, now I have to do it even better because I got to prove you wrong."
Unfortunately, we are not all the same, and some people might react differently, particularly when these negative comments revolve around race and sex. "I do know students now, and even people in their adult phases, that may have had certain aspirations and were kind of told you're not good enough," says Olutayo. "And they listened to those things, and they didn't aspire to those things that they dreamed up. I don't think that anyone should feel limited or have a cap on their potential based on their gender, based on their sex, based on their race. I think that we have to realize that biases and inequities do exist, but how do we want to move past them to really inspire that next generation?"
We want to leave you with these closing thoughts and join Olutayo in encouraging you to not let anyone define you and tell you that you are not good enough. You are the owner of your personal and professional journey, and there's nothing you can't achieve, regardless of your race, sex, gender, religion, or any other construct designed by a biased society. In this interview, Olutayo addresses many important topics; her words are food for thought for past, present, and future generations of physicians. We thank her once again for sharing her amazing experiences, which we are sure will inspire thousands of physicians worldwide.