Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Oral history: Karen Deveney, M.D.

by Rachel Fellman

We have another oral history project to highlight today: Dr. Karen Deveney, former head of the OHSU Surgery Residency Program and president of the Pacific Coast Surgical Association.

Karen Deveney, M.D. (courtesy of "Reflections on a trailblazing career in surgery") - click to link to article
Karen Deveney, M.D. (courtesy of "Reflections on a trailblazing career in surgery")
Dr. Deveney is a strong voice for women's and rural surgical education, and these interests are reflected in her background: she came from Gresham back when it was a country town. Although their home wasn’t yet a suburb of Portland, her father had the quintessentially Portland job of rose farmer. Her family had always been pioneers (her mother’s family came over on the Oregon Trail), but it fell to her to be the educational trailblazer, as her parents had come of age at the start of the Depression and had had no chance to go to college.

Growing up, Dr. Deveney only knew one doctor. He was the mayor of Gresham and seemed to move in a different sphere. So medicine never seemed to be on the table as a career choice. It took a few years of teaching at a tumultuous junior high school in San Francisco, where a Molotov cocktail was once thrown into the teachers’ lounge, to convince her that she wanted to take her education further. In this, she was encouraged by her husband, then a medical student; when she told him he was lucky to be doing something he loved, he suggested that she join him.

During admissions, the interviewer asked what a woman of her “mature years” was doing applying to medical school (the twenty-three-year-old applicant suspected that this was simply a euphemism for “married woman”). But her strong will, work ethic, and ability to collaborate with faculty prevailed. She became the second woman to finish a surgical residency at the University of California in San Francisco, and went on to do advanced work in colorectal surgery, creating a program at the San Francisco VA to research surgical outcomes and teach surgeons endoscopy and colonoscopy. She became half of a husband-and-wife team of surgeon-administrators.

In the late eighties, they were called home after her mother developed Alzheimer's. She was hired at OHSU to run the surgical education program, and given a mandate to build the best department on the West Coast.

For Dr. Deveney, the process of building that department was inseparable from the process of making it an environment where women could thrive. (Her husband, tapped to be chief of surgery at the Portland VA, shared similar priorities.) At the time she began, there were no women on the faculty, one or two female residents at best, and an unchecked culture of sexual harassment. Women were discouraged from going into surgery; “It was viewed as too difficult and that it was a very stressful, malignant situation. […] Even the faculty in other departments would tell female medical students, ‘Don’t go into surgery. You’ll have a miserable life. You’ll never be happy. And it will be terrible.’” 

Today, a third of the OHSU faculty are women, as are half the residents. Dr. Deveney is a strong believer in a “critical mass” of underrepresented people “that can work together to make a change in the culture of the organization.” She is passionate about women’s leadership, arguing that women offer “situational awareness, emotional intelligence […] the ability to be collaborative and not autocratic.” And with many women among the residents, the male residents feel that they have permission to be “more humanistic and more concerned about their family life,” rather than pushed to express nonstop machismo. Through judicious hiring, encouragement of diverse leadership, and strong discouragement of sexual harassment and bias on campus, OHSU was able to learn to value and welcome female students.

Dr. Deveney is also proud of her work developing a rural surgery rotation for OHSU, with year-long programs in Grants Pass and Coos Bay. Rural surgeons need to be generalists as well as specialists, and they’re expected to know their communities intimately – the job takes interpersonal as well as surgical skills. Rural hospitals also have a perpetual problem with recruitment and replacing aging staff. OHSU’s program began as an elective and later evolved into a rotation. Most of OHSU’s rotations are six weeks to two months, but residents work in rural surgery for a full year to give them a chance to connect with the community and build the experienced surgeons’ trust.

This rather long post still doesn't cover most of the oral history -- it's packed with reflection and advice. I encourage you to check it out here.

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