Member Spotlight: Meet Sue Carlisle, MD, PhD

  • CSA Women in Anesthesia Committee
| Sep 13, 2022

In recognition of Women in Medicine Month and the many major accomplishments by women in anesthesia, CSA will be highlighting a variety of women leaders who practice throughout the state. They bring 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:

carlisle-zsfgSue Carlisle, MD, PhD

  • Vice Dean, University of California San Francisco School of Medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital
  • Professor of Clinical Anesthesia, University of California at San Francisco
  • Board of Directors, San Francisco General Hospital Foundation
  • Member, California Society of Anesthesiologists

Can you tell us a little about being a woman in anesthesia?

It was difficult for women in science and medicine when I first started my path toward becoming a doctor. My professors discouraged me from attending medical school, so I went on to pursue a PhD. Only about four percent of PhDs in the country were earned by women at the time, so that should say a lot about the challenges I faced; however, I persevered. I went on to do my post-doctorate at Rice University where I was the only woman post-doctoral fellow in the department of biology. I then moved to Philadelphia in search of a teaching and research job that brought me to the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University where I ran the research lab and taught anatomy. I later attended the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Out of 180 people in the program, I was one of 30 women. I then trained in Internal Medicine, Critical Care Medicine, and Anesthesiology at UCSF and subsequently became a faculty member in Anesthesia and Critical Care. Prior to becoming Vice Dean, I served as the Chief of Anesthesia at ZSFG.

What does the industry look like now?

At the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), 52 percent of the incoming class are women and 52 percent are underrepresented minorities, showing remarkable progress. There are so many successful women in science and medicine that it has lifted the awareness of the need and the desirability of having more gender diversity and more overall diversity in medicine.

We’ve come a long way with the specialty but there is still work to do to raise awareness about the difficulty experienced by women and people of color, especially women of color. Many women of color have had a very difficult time being accepted into programs for which they are highly qualified. They have to earn trust and acceptance in those positions once they are there. I want aspiring anesthesiologists to know that it’s not only the responsibility of all women who have been successful, but everyone’s responsibility to raise awareness of women’s issues and issues of equality.

How would you advise someone who is looking ahead at a potential career in medicine?

Understand what your ambitions and strengths are, and then fashion a career around that. I have found that one can be exceptionally good at something, and not truly enjoy it. I have also seen people who were not so great at things but they enjoyed what they did. The trick is to find something that you’re both good at and enjoy. Being good doesn’t equate enjoyment.

When it comes to women rising in their careers, people often talk about the glass ceiling, but they don’t see the power of the glass cliff. The glass cliff concept is about how women are often brought in when there is a crisis and they are expected to fix things when it’s almost too late. Many times, throughout my career, I have been among some of the women chosen because of that phenomenon. When there is crisis, that’s when our talents are needed and recognized, so you have to rise to the occasion it seems.

Don’t undersell yourself. As woman, we do not self-promote enough. Men tend to be more confident in their skills and abilities. Women will not apply for a job unless they have 80 percent of the qualifications, but men will apply if they have 40 percent. It’s important for us to know our value and learn how to negotiate our salaries. For young women starting a career, if a door opens, don’t be afraid to take a chance. Be willing to do things and learn on the job and be willing to stretch. When you stay in your comfort zone, that’s where you will stay.

What have you seen during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG) is the trauma center for the City and County of San Francisco and Northern San Mateo as well as the safety net hospital for the City. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the anesthesia team helped to organize and staff a COVID intensive care unit (ICU) and put together guidelines to care for very ill COVID patients. These guidelines are now nationally recognized. The UCSF anesthesia department also sent teams to New York City and Navajo Nation to help care for extremely ill patients whose medical providers were stretched beyond their resources. San Francisco managed to have better control of the pandemic so we were in the position to share resources with hospitals in need throughout the country.

Were anesthesiologists better positioned than other specialties to lead during COVID?

Anesthesiologists are broadly trained. We conduct pre-operative evaluations, provide care for acute patients, and deal with patients post-operatively, so we learn crisis management early in our training. Anesthesiologists are also trained to deal with the spectrum of diseases. We have existing experience and physiologic knowledge to deal with those kinds of things, as well as the emotional stability to deal with extreme crises. And we know how to meet patients and quickly gain their trust in a short period of time. All of these skills have been helpful for anesthesiologists managing through the course of this pandemic.

You can also check out Dr. Ludwig Lin's interview with Dr. Carlisle on CSA's new podcast, Vital Times. CLICK HERE to listen.  

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