In conjunction with the International Women’s Day—a global event celebrated on 8 March annually—MIMS Today’s editorial desk is proud to present seven profoundly inspiring stories for the entire month of March. Putting forward the notion that “women are healers”, we bring to you our #HealsInHeels special feature—capturing a month of amazing, empowering stories—dedicated to our women in healthcare.

Our highlights of Part 2 are three leading women doctors who are carving their name in the surgical field. As they challenge the status quo, these remarkable women chose to be in a field most notable to be male-dominated. #BeBoldforChange, they are strong and brave—and they certainly dare to be different. First on the hot seat of our #DareTo series is Dr April Camilla Roslani, Professor, Head of General and Colorectal Surgery.

Dr April is a member of various national and international professional bodies. Her areas of expertise include general surgery and colorectal surgery. Photo credit: Dr April Camilla Roslani
Dr April is a member of various national and international professional bodies. Her areas of expertise include general surgery and colorectal surgery. Photo credit: Dr April Camilla Roslani

One on one with Dr April Camilla Roslani

Professor Dr April Camilla Roslani obtained her medical degree from the University of Wales, where she graduated with honours in 1995. She received her Master of Surgery from University Malaya in 2003 and was top of her class.

While most people view surgery as something that is very technical and scientific, Dr April finds it “more of an art”. “The art is of course underpinned by the science; so, you need to have the science to back it. At the end of the day, why does one surgeon have better outcomes than another? There is a lot of artistry to it,” elaborates Dr April.

Dr April has always liked the subject. However, when she started her housemanship, she often found that what made it different from the other fields was the “element of teamwork”.

“You work in a team which consists of not only doctors, but nurses as well. In the operating theatre (OT), the nurses assist you, and you also work with other specialties. It's teamwork, there's a very strong camaraderie, you're more than just colleagues—you actually become very close friends—and I liked that! I didn't find that so much in other specialties, really. In surgery, you look after each other, you cover for each other. They are not calculative—it’s a good culture,” expresses Dr April.

Dr April, seen here with her husband, Azlan Sharom and their two children, Adib and Ayla. Photo credit: Dr April Camilla Roslani
Dr April, seen here with her husband, Azlan Sharom and their two children, Adib and Ayla. Photo credit: Dr April Camilla Roslani

1. Was it always your ambition to be in this specialty? Tell us your journey.
I have always enjoyed surgery, even during my medical school days. I think I did well in it compared to my other postings; but, I didn’t find much encouragement to do surgery at the time. I trained in the UK; so even there, the attitude was that it was always ‘assumed’ that only the boys would go into surgery. [Smiles]

I returned to Malaysia after my undergraduate studies, and applied for housemanship. During the interview itself, I was already ‘pushed’ to go into other postings such as paediatrics. [Smiles] At that point of my life, I did not consider surgery as a career. However, when I actually started working, surgery was my second posting and I just fell in love with it.

2. Gender bias occurs in many disciplines of academia, including medicine. Could you describe your experience as a female surgeon?
Basically, I think it’s about gaining credibility. Generally, if you can show that your outcomes are good, they will treat you the same. I know my experience is not universal, I know there are people who have had problems—in terms of being accepted—but, in my experience, generally provided that you perform (you do the work, you don't try to ask for exceptions or favours), then they will accept you as one of them.

Having said that, in order to gain that acceptance is not easy—because obviously there are some things that I found difficult to get into. There is always that ‘social perception’ when seeing a woman with a group of guys. It may be something that your family might not like, and it becomes a source of gossip for the people around the hospital which is not very nice. From patients’ perspective, there are times they think that you are not capable of doing surgery, or they don't consider you as a surgeon. I have led ward rounds; but the patients would talk to the house officer—who is a man. It is automatically assumed that the male is always the head.

I think a lot of the obstacles are actually extrinsic, not intrinsic. It is how our social and cultural expectations are. How our work environment is structured, it's not very women friendly. And often when you try to change things, they say well this is how it has always been and this is how it should be. If you want to be a surgeon you have to be like the men.

3. Any specific challenges and obstacles that you had to overcome to get where you are right now?
I became a mother when I was just starting my surgical training. So, I entered the programme when my son was six months old—and I had to live separately from my husband, who was in Penang. I was doing a lot of on-calls, therefore, I had to figure out childcare. Luckily, my parents helped out. But after 36 hours of working non-stop—you come home and you have to look after the baby! On top of that, I had exams to prepare for, and I remember while preparing for my part 1 exams – I was breastfeeding my baby and had to study with the torchlight in the dark. That's the sort of thing that usually men don't have to do. I think it could be better—we could have made it not too hard for women to have a family, and also a career. I think there should be a change in mindset.

4. As a healthcare professional—with the level of commitment and work load—how do you juggle between family and career?
It's challenging to bring up your children when you're away so much, when your career demands so much from you. And, people ask, “why don't you share your workload?” FYI, healthcare is a bit different. If you are an expert in your field, and you are needed to attend to an emergency that no one else is available to do—then, you have to do it. You can't just say “well I'm not scheduled, I'm not on-call or whatever, go find somebody else”. So, it's hard to bring children up in that kind of environment.

Being in the academic line, we have to present our research and share our expertise—so, I had to travel a lot. But, I didn’t want to leave my baby behind because then you will become very distant, right? You are the stranger who comes home once in a while—and, I didn’t want that. That was obviously difficult – logistically – and also expensive, as I usually bring along my parents or in-laws. But, that's what you do, that's what it takes. [Smiles]

5. Any words of wisdom to those who aspire to follow your footsteps?
Generally, I believe you should do something that you enjoy—but, you have to also be good at it and you have to be prepared to do what it takes. Don't do it for money, glamour or fame. All that comes at the expense of a lot of sacrifices and hard work. Do it because you enjoy the work and because you feel you are doing some good for the patients. It really boils down to knowing yourself—knowing who you are, what you want and what you are willing to do to get it. Don't let the naysayers get you down, provided you are doing it for the right reasons. Just do it!

6. How would you describe the involvement of women in our healthcare scene?
I would say women are an indispensable part of the healthcare system. We're not talking about just doctors, but the nurses who provide an immense amount of support. Although you have some men in nursing, it is still predominantly a women's field. Without them, we couldn’t do even half of the things that we are doing now. And I feel like women are very much driven by altruism. I think women should be celebrated for taking care of the nation's health basically.

As a surgeon, Dr April feels that there are some disadvantages in being a woman in the field where she needs to work harder than her male counterparts—in order to gain credibility. In addition, there is also the physical aspect where the nature of the job is that a surgeon needs to have the strength, the stamina, the ability to push through when tired, having lack of sleep and being able to work under high pressure situations.

“I think that was why in the past it was not thought to be suitable for women. But, if you really look at what women go through on a day to day basis, we work under high pressure situations, we work with lack of sleep while handling our children. We have good technical skills; our manual skills are very good. Being very meticulous is good for surgery because that means you take extra care in everything you do. So, I don't think there are inherent obstacles to women becoming surgeons,” says Dr April.

Dr April is currently the President-elect of the Asia Pacific Federation of Coloproctology, Senior Vice-President for the College of Surgeons, Academy of Medicine of Malaysia, Honorary Secretary for the Malaysian Society of Colorectal Surgeons, and Council member for the Asia Pacific Federation of Coloproctology, ASEAN Society of Colorectal Surgeons and ASEAN Federation of Surgical Colleges (including the Education Committee). MIMS

“I think women should be celebrated for taking care of the nation's health.” – Dr April Camilla Roslani

Make sure to check back on 26 March for more inspiring stories of our #WOW leading women in healthcare who #DareTo challenge the status quo. Receive the latest updates when you sign up for a free MIMS account!

#HealsInHeels: Celebrating women in healthcare
#WOW: Leading women in healthcare — Dr Chong Su-Lin
He Says, She Says: Gender equality in healthcare careers