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The winds of change in cardiology: women weigh in

This is an addendum to a story that appears in Mayo Clinic Alumni magazine (issue 4, 2018), “The winds of change in cardiology: Mayo Clinic makes headway in tipping the gender balance scales.” 

‘I appreciate the colleagues who went before me who opened up part-time status as a possibility. It allowed me to choose that career path without being viewed as any less of an academic cardiologist.’

On the day Amy Pollak, M.D. (CV ’12), Department of Cardiovascular Disease at Mayo Clinic in Florida, graduated from college, her grandmother had a heart attack.

“She had 35 grandchildren and was the matriarch of the family,” says Dr. Pollak. “I was planning to go to medical school for obstetrics and gynecology, but my interests changed as a result of her heart attack. She had atypical symptoms, which made me want to study cardiology and women’s heart disease.”

During her medical training, a few people suggested she should consider a different specialty, insinuating that it wasn’t compatible with having a family.

“I knew where my passion was and what I was called to do,” says Dr. Pollak. “I also saw women in cardiology who made it work.”

After training at the University of Virginia and serving on its cardiology staff for a year, Dr. Pollak joined the cardiology staff at Mayo Clinic in Rochester while her husband, Peter Pollak, M.D. (CVIC ’13, CVHD ’14), completed a fellowship. The couple had a 4-month-old daughter. Charanjit Rihal, M.D. (I ’89, CV ’93), was chair of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the time.

“Dr. Rihal asked me what I thought of working less than full time, at 0.8 FTE,” says Dr. Pollak. “He explained that it was an option that some colleagues in cardiology chose when their children were small and that it offered a good work-life balance. I hadn’t even known that was a consideration. That was one of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever received. I work part time, with two young children. Although being a working mother always involves balance, I still get invitations to speak at meetings, and I participate in research projects. I am a fully engaged academic cardiologist.

“Time is so fleeting with kids. I get to be a cardiologist but also enjoy more of the moments with my children. I’m forever grateful I work at Mayo Clinic. What a gift. I appreciate the colleagues who went before me who opened up part-time status as a possibility. It allowed me to choose that career path without being viewed as any less of an academic cardiologist.”

When Dr. Pollak’s husband completed his two-year fellowship, the couple saw opportunities for leadership positions in a growing program at Mayo Clinic in Florida. They’ve been there for four years. Dr. Pollak directs the women’s heart clinic, and her husband directs the structural heart program.

She says Sharonne Hayes, M.D. (I ’86, CV ’90), Division of Preventive Cardiology and founder of the Women’s Heart Clinic at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, provided her with another choice bit of career advice.

“Dr. Hayes comes to Mayo Clinic in Florida at least twice a year, and she gave me some of the best career advice I’ve ever received,” says Dr. Pollak. “She said to say yes to an invitation to give a talk, do a research project or write a chapter in a book only if it brings personal joy or advances the science or your career trajectory. If it isn’t something or someone you’re passionate about or it doesn’t advance your career or science, it’s OK to say no. If you say yes to everything, your plate becomes too full. As women we often want to be inclusive, accept opportunities and say yes to everything. Saying no opens up space in your life for other things and can bring you greater professional satisfaction. It’s OK to let the opportunity go to someone else who does feel passionate about it.”

Dr. Pollak says she hasn’t encountered any particular challenges as a woman in cardiology. “There’s a slowdown that can happen in your academic career when you have very young children. The year after my son was born, my productivity declined, I did fewer talks and was involved in fewer papers. But that was a personal decision I made so I could enjoy time outside of work with my family. My children are now 7 and 2, and it’s been fun in the last six months to get re-involved in research and more writing.”

Dr. Pollak is one of three women cardiologists at Mayo Clinic in Florida in a staff of about 20. The department now has more female than male fellows.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to mentor rising cardiologists and have open discussions about challenges they may encounter,” she says. “It’s inspiring to watch them handle the rigors of training along with their responsibilities at home, including parenting for some of them. Just as I’m grateful to the women who preceded me in cardiology at Mayo Clinic and paved the way for me to have a career where I can balance family and work responsibilities, I want to break new ground to ease the journey for those who come after me. Our department chair, Leslie Cooper, M.D. (CVVM ’97), is incredibly supportive and a tremendous advocate for women in cardiology.

“We need to continue to have open dialogue about opportunities and options in medicine as they consider different specialties and quality of life. If you find cardiology exciting and intellectually stimulating, you should pursue it.”

‘I’m grateful to the women who paved the way and all they did to make it possible for me to be a cardiology fellow and not feel that being a woman significantly affected my experience.’

When Carolyn Larsen, M.D. (I ’13, CV ’17), Department of Cardiovascular Disease at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, was a fellow at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, she says she didn’t feel like a female cardiology fellow — she just felt like a cardiology fellow.

Although cardiology traditionally has a reputation as a “boys’ club,” she says she didn’t encounter any significant barriers during her training at Mayo Clinic and didn’t feel she was treated differently than her male colleagues. “I’m grateful to the women who paved the way and all they did to make it possible for me to be a cardiology fellow and not feel that being a woman significantly affected my experience. I’ve had excellent female role models and mentors at Mayo Clinic, which made it easier to choose cardiology for my medical career. They made wanting to train to be a cardiologist feel like a normal thing to do.”

Dr. Larsen chose the specialty because cardiovascular disease, when untreated, has a significant impact on quality of life and survival. “I wanted to have a direct impact on people’s lives on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “I was aware of the perceived barriers about women in cardiology, but I chose not to dwell on them. It was the career I wanted, and there were many role models at Mayo who demonstrated it was possible.

“My cardiology training at Mayo Clinic was an excellent experience, and I am glad I chose to pursue the field. I want women training in medicine who are interested in cardiology to believe that they can choose a career in cardiology if it is the area of medicine they enjoy most. The more women who are in the profession and can serve as role models, the more women we’ll attract to cardiology.”

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