In recognition of the many major accomplishments by women in anesthesia, CSA will be 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:
Eugenia Ayrian, MD, FASA
Associate Professor of Clinical Anesthesiology, Keck Medicine at USC
What inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?
I wanted to have a career in medicine for as long as I can remember. I grew up with a certainty that I would be a doctor, and there were a few factors that contributed to that sense of certainty. I was raised in the former Soviet Union, where there were few professions to choose from and where that decision was largely guided by a sense of familial legacy. It felt natural that my career would follow that of my maternal grandparents, who were both highly regarded physicians. I was fortunate, however, to also carry a personal passion for medicine, and the right disposition for it. After graduating medical school I came to the United States, got married and started a family, so it took me longer to get through my exams, adjust to the new culture, and take the next steps with applying for residency. My initial interest was with endocrinology, so when I got accepted into an anesthesia residency program I thought I would start there and eventually switch over to become an endocrinologist. But an unexpected love and interest in anesthesiology emerged in me, and I found myself making the first of many career-defining decisions. I like the immediate gratification of caring for my patients, helping them recover and feel better, and how it’s truly a very in-the-moment field of medicine that requires here-and-now problem solving.
To medical school applicants, I say – if you come to medicine to make money, you’re in the wrong place. The level of commitment and hard work required in this profession is not comparable to the reimbursement. Being a doctor is one of the most respected professions in this country – you have to be willing to stand up in the middle of dinner and leave your family or friends to go to the hospital for an emergency case. You have to love the profession to do that year after year – you can’t do it for the money. Long hours of work and dedication to patients can lead to resentful burnout which is a destructive force that unfortunately too many doctors are hit with. On the other side, if you’re drawn to medicine, excited by the work, motivated to grow and learn, it is inexplicably gratifying. The work exhausts at times, but the pay-off is immense.
What has been your experience with mentorship?
In recent years, I’ve been able to experience the mentoring side of the mentorship dyad, and in conjunction with my experience as a mentee, I’ve started to see the overall experience of mentorship as an integral and fascinating part of my work. I’ve had a particular mentor, Dr. Vladimir Zelman, through the years that I’ve consistently worked with, and that relationship has supported me through challenges and obstacles. The power of such a relationship, which provides not only guidance, but also a sense of being believed in, has been no small part of my growth and success in the field. I’ve drawn on his work with me to inform my own work as a mentor. The development of my own mentoring style is inextricable from my development as a mentee.
What has it been like to practice medicine in the U.S. after growing up in another country?
It was tough at first, but despite the challenges, the journey of self-discovery and growth was incredible. Most importantly, I have gained a level of confidence I didn’t have in those early years.
I came to this country with a rudimentary knowledge of English, which made certain processes more difficult than if I spoke natively, it made studying for exams so much more challenging.
And when I reached fluency in English, my accent continued to be very noticeable, and this, combined with being a “petite” woman, contributed to a sense of inferiority. But with time and experience, I gained a sense of confidence, and am able to discern what does and does not genuinely define me today.
Thankfully, the medical field, and particularly anesthesiology, has grown more diverse, and I’m proud and glad to be a part of that diversity. I see it happening in my own department development! My advice for anyone walking into professional contexts feeling lesser-than because of who they are, where they are from, the way they look, etc. is to believe that how people perceive all these things about you isn’t actually what defines you. So do whatever you can to get to a place where you can walk into the room and know that you are no less than anybody else in that room based on how you present. Dealing with it has also given me a lot of strength and resilience.
I loved my home country, but when I came to the U.S. I was amazed. Walking around Los Angeles, sitting on a university lawn at age 22, I saw a type of freedom that I could never experience in my country. I will never forget that day and that empowering feeling. The U.S. provided opportunity and avenues that weren’t open to me where I’m from. Of course it takes hard work as well as some luck, but you can shape your future and achieve what you want in ways that you can’t in some other places. My advice for other foreign doctors coming to the U.S. is to embrace the freedom, work hard through the ups and downs to reach your goals, and enjoy the road to success.