Barbara Hamilton is planning a Palm Springs retreat this fall for women in careers dominated by men.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT
If we want better healthcare, we need to empower more women to become doctors, says Barbara Hamilton, chief interventional radiologist at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.
Too often, she laments, the old-school boys’ club nature of medicine siphons women into specialties that are perceived to be less demanding. Despite women comprising more than half of all medical students — they made up 51.5 percent of enrollees and 53.4 percent of applicants in 2020, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges — many areas of practice still bear a significant gender gap in providers. Hamilton attributes that disparity to subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) discouragements women and other minorities encounter during medical school and postgraduate training.
“I felt very compelled to talk about this in a public way,” she says. Three years ago, the New Jersey native, who has called Palm Springs home since 2014, launched a blog called Tired Superheroine, and in 2020, she released her first book, Save Lives, Enjoy Your Own: Finding Your Place in Medicine. Both are aimed toward students and young professionals who don’t fit into the “traditional” box yet may be considering the pursuit of a male-dominated field, such as Hamilton’s own concentration in interventional radiology. This branch of diagnostic imaging, which uses technology like X-ray fluoroscopy to guide minimally invasive surgical procedures, has fewer than one female provider in every group of 10 physicians, according to data published in 2019 by American Journal of Roentgenology.
A big part of Hamilton’s job at Desert Regional is working with trauma patients — motor vehicle crashes, ATV accidents, the occasional gunshot wound. If, for example, a motorcyclist is hit and their pelvis is crushed, it may be difficult for a surgeon to determine which of the tiny blood vessels is bleeding out. That’s where Hamilton’s expertise comes in.
“If I find the bleeder, I can close it down using a minimally invasive technique, by driving through the body under X-ray and then putting some surgical gel foam right into the artery,” she explains, likening the process on some level to a video game.
The 2020 book by Dr. Barbara Hamilton, Save Lives, Enjoy Your Own: Finding Your Place in Medicine.
The Coachella Valley had been underserved in this department, Hamilton points out. Aside from Southern California being a storybook place to live, and the valley’s proximity to Los Angeles, where her musician husband, Bob, had made meaningful connections for his career, Hamilton hoped to find a community where her training was “desperately needed.” After joining Desert Care Network (which also operates John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio and Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree), she was able to bring new treatments to the area that were not previously available in the local vicinity. Two such services are tumor ablation, where a tumor can be fried or frozen on the spot without surgery, and transvenous obliteration of varices, which helps with life-threatening bleeding episodes related to enlarged veins in the stomach and esophagus.
Had Hamilton tuned into the naysayers along the way or been influenced by the scarcity of women in interventional radiology, the Coachella Valley still might be lacking these alternatives to major surgeries. Through Save Lives, Enjoy Your Own andTired Superheroine, Hamilton endeavors to show others that the path is possible for them, too.
Dr. Barbara Hamilton
Doing her part to put a little more representation out there into the world, she shares stories about her own experiences as a full-time physician, wife, and mother — her son, Wesley, is 3 — alongside anecdotes from colleagues in various procedural and surgical fields.
“You have to see different examples of something before you can know it exists,” Hamilton says. “I think for women in medicine and women in male-dominated fields, that’s especially true. They’re seen as unicorns. Sometimes I feel like I’m oversharing online, but I know that it’s going to help someone. I envision someone who is a year or two into medical school or residency finding me on the internet in the middle of the night, and that is why this blog exists.”
During her own residency, Hamilton remembers feeling like “the weird one” when it came time to declare her focus to her superiors. “I actually had one guy say, ‘You’re going to do that? Yeah, right!’ I think he was just taken aback. I think he didn’t expect me to say that — and he was one of the nice attendings. It was one of the pricklier attendings with a gruffer exterior who took me aside and said, ‘Of course you can do this career if you want to,’” she shares. “That was a really formative moment for me, and it’s something I share with other people. You can make a huge difference in someone’s early career because they’re that impressionable.”
If women make up more than half the talent pool, but they feel like they don’t belong in certain fields, we won’t have the best physicians and surgeons when we need them, Hamilton says. “It also leads to burnout. If they’re told to settle for something that’s not their first choice, it’s not going to lead to good career longevity.”
Another cause close to Hamilton’s heart is financial empowerment. She blogs about the topic and has been developing a virtual course, Broke to Breadwinner and Beyond, that aims to demystify finances for women in medicine and STEM fields. (“Part of thriving as a female physician is knowing what to do with your money,” she says.) Next up, she’s planning a retreat in October that will bring together 20 or so women who work in male-dominated fields for five days at a boutique hotel in Palm Springs.
Through it all, she hopes to show the next generation of medical students that it’s OK to buck the norms and remind them that they can pursue any specialty they choose.
“I think some people would be surprised that there’s this huge gender gap in medicine,” Hamilton says. “A lot of people put out this rigid view of how things are, and I think it’s keeping good women out of places where their talent would otherwise call them to be. I just want to be a virtual role model until we have a critical mass of real-world role models at every institution. I hope to be an example of what’s possible.”
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