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Member Spotlight: Meet Rita Agarwal, MD, FAAP, FASA

In recognition of the many major accomplishments by women in anesthesia, CSA is highlighting a variety of women leaders who practice throughout the state, bringing their diverse backgrounds and life perspectives into their work, taking purposeful steps to create pathways for mentorship and sponsorship, and helping support the clinical and research work that is being driven by an increasingly diverse field of anesthesiologists.

Below is one of the series profiles on women making great things happen in anesthesia:

Agarwal-RitaRita Agarwal MD, FAAP, FASA

  • Clinical Professor of Anesthesiology at Stanford School of Medicine
  • Immediate Past President, Society for Pediatric Pain Medicine
  • Board Member for the California Society of Anesthesiologists – Past Chair of the Committee on Professional and Public Communications
  • American Board of Anesthesiology Exam Committee Member

You have a very international background, how did you find a pathway into medicine?

My mother is from Iran and my father is from India, but they met in England while my mother was studying to be a nurse midwife and my father was a geophysicist. They moved to Iran where I was born, but then we moved to Lebanon, then to England, and then to Houston, Texas as my father worked in oil exploration. There was definitely a culture shock coming from England and then going to Texas A&M for undergrad. I had two main interests in school – ever since I took a biology class in middle school, I wanted to be a doctor, but I also loved to write and wanted to be an author. I feel so lucky to have landed in my role where I get to write and practice medicine. Being Chair of the CSA CPPC committee for the past four years gave me a creative writing outlet that I didn’t have before, and through my practice I also work on academic papers and research.

Do you feel like there were barriers to overcome in your career path?

I remember going to career fairs and being asked what I want to do when I grow up – I always said I wanted to be a doctor, and they often asked me what my backup plan was. That left me dumbfounded, like why are they suggesting I can’t go to medical school or become a doctor? I’m lucky that I found a great mentor in my first year of college. I wasn’t even in his class, but he would post word puzzles and anagrams on his office door, inviting any student who could solve them to come in and have a chat. After I solved a few, I finally knocked and went in, and I was able to work in his chemistry lab and get great support that encouraged me to continue pursuing my interests.

What do you love most about your work?

When I was in medical school, I thought I wanted to be a neurologist, but I got to do anesthesia as an elective and that brought me into the OR and I just fell in love with the specialty. Then during my anesthesia residency, I did a peds rotation and I had so much fun and found it so challenging and rewarding. I really think pediatric anesthesiology is the absolute best fit for me. I enjoy working with children – it’s both intense and incredibly fun at the same time. It’s different than working with adult patients – we rely on our ability to engage with children, tell stories and sing songs and work so hard to make the experience comfortable for them. I also love the interaction with the children’s families. They are scared and it’s a privilege to help children and their families feel at ease, and they are so grateful that we kept their child safe. That feedback is so rewarding. I’m also amazed by how children are so vulnerable and simultaneously so resilient. Seeing this helps me push through any exhaustion or get over a bad day.

How can you advocate for yourself and your career goals as an anesthesiologist?

There’s a misconception that a mentor can only come from within your own organization, but that’s not true. Mentors come in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and interests, so people starting in practices should look around if they don’t find what they need within their immediate circle. Look outside to associations like CSA and others where there is a strong interest in creating opportunities and building connections.

When I started, my group was a mix of academic and private practice. I was the first and only university employed faculty at the time (and the only woman), so I had to look elsewhere to find opportunities and connection. Getting involved in medical societies was great way to do that and I engaged with the Society for Pediatric Anesthesia and the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine. I’ve always been an outlier who looked different and had to create my own opportunities. I would just show up to meetings, and share my ideas and thoughts with these groups, and anything that I committed to doing I did it on time and well. My biggest accomplishment is helping co-found the Society for Pediatric Pain Medicine – we realized there was an interest and need for this specialized group and we were able to build the group with little cost and great success. SPPM is now eight years old and just held a great meeting – lectures are still available online that highlight multi-disciplinary approaches to pain medicine focused on kids. Through this engagement with professional medical societies, I was able to find incredible mentors who have been very supportive. I think it’s important for young physicians to know that if they don’t find what they need in their own practice group or institution that they should look outside into other avenues. You just need to find connections with one or two people who support you and make you feel like you matter.

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