By Anu Bajaj, MD
On this Fathers Day, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the past seven years of working with my father. In 2007, I joined my father in private practice in Oklahoma City. Many have assumed that I pursued a career in plastic surgery to follow in my father’s footsteps.
“Almost in defiance of these assumptions, I pursued a fellowship and then joined an academic practice in a different city.”
The actual story is that while as a young girl I had dreamed of becoming a surgeon, that dream turned to one of becoming a writer while I was in college – my father believed that journalism was an unstable career choice, so I was told to pursue an alternative. Then, when I did decide on pursuing plastic surgery, my father actually discouraged me from a surgical career.
The same assumptions repeated themselves after I completed my plastic surgery residency. Many of my surgical attendings and fellow residents assumed that I would join my father in private practice in Oklahoma City. Almost in defiance of these assumptions, I pursued a fellowship and then joined an academic practice in a different city.
“My patients and others always ask me about what it is like working with my dad.”
After a few years, I did move back to my hometown, and I did join my father in private practice. Initially, I worked under his direction – he had fallen on the ice during the winter and broken his wrist, making him unable to operate for three months. All of his patients (who were already scheduled for surgery) were given the choice of a referral to another plastic surgeon in the community or me. Then, in the early years, we worked together on many of the larger surgeries in plastic surgery — breast reductions, breast reconstructions, abdominoplasties, etc. As time wore on, he stopped performing those larger, more tedious surgeries and now limits his practice to primarily hand and face. And we stopped working together for most surgeries. However, he still assists me on all of my free flaps, which are primarily DIEP flaps. During this time, I have been able to share with him the new microsurgical techniques that I had learned during my fellowship.
“The good part of working with your father is you always have a support system”
My patients and others always ask me about what it is like working with my dad. I’ve always said that it is both good and bad. I remember the first free flap he and I did together in 2007. He tried to assist me under the microscope. Both of us became frustrated with one another because each of us wanted to be in charge. After that experience, he does not assist me under the microscope anymore. We had a similar degree of mutual frustration with the first free fibula that we did together too.
The good part of working with your father is you always have a support system – he has told me that he worries for me and becomes just as stressed as I do about having a successful outcome when I perform complicated microsurgical cases. The bad part is that while I am also a surgeon, I am his daughter – like many fathers, he believes that his way is right, and this sometimes applies in the operating room as well. As surgeons, we have come to believe that we are the leaders in the operating room, and while it takes an entire team to perform a surgery, there is ultimately one person with the primary responsibility – the surgeon. As a daughter, I have to listen to my father; as a surgeon, I may not want to.
“I had a really good time working with him last week on this surgery. Part of the joy came from the excitement in the preparation for the surgery”
Now that we have worked together for seven years, we have an established routine, and we rarely have father-daughter conflicts. He primarily will assist me on my DIEP flaps only, unless I ask him to work with me on other surgeries. Recently, I did ask him to assist me on a closed rhinoplasty because he has a great deal more experience with this procedure. My father particularly loves this operation, and I think that he was excited that I asked him to help me.
I had a really good time working with him last week on this surgery. Part of the joy came from the excitement in the preparation for the surgery – reviewing photos, ensuring that we had all of the necessary instruments in our new surgical facility, and discussing the surgical goals. The actual surgery was fun too – I think that I’ve learned that I have to allow my father to be my father, even when we are working together, and I don’t have to be the daughter who has something to prove.