Dean's Update

September 10, 2021 - Aron Sousa, MD


This is our second week of Women in Medicine Month, and, rather than writing about women in medicine myself, I am turning over the bulk of the update to College of Human Medicine women alumni writing brief pieces about women in medicine who inspired them. This week, Janet Osuch, MD (CHM ‘79, ’00), has written a lovely piece about fellow cancer surgeon Dr. Susan Love.

Dr. Osuch, who has both her MD and MS in epidemiology from the college, has been a thoughtful leader at so many levels, and I want to refer you to the National Library of Medicine’s Changing the Face of Medicine project, where you can read about her accomplishments. The biography and Q and A at that site gives you a good sense of Dr. Osuch’s passion and talent. But, I think only people who have spent real time with Janet can tell you about her deep reserves of spirituality, resilience, and quick sense of humor.

After some structural work on our expansion in Grand Rapids, I pretty much turned over the implementation of our increasing class size and preclinical coursework there to Dr. Osuch and her team. They did a brilliant job, and I have been so fortunate to have Janet as a colleague and friend. Dr. Osuch, the update is yours:

As an introduction, I graduated from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in 1979. At that time, only 5% of medical school classes across the country were composed of women. I chose a career in surgery, although I resisted this for a very long time, knowing that there were even fewer women in that field, and that the residency training was brutal. Eventually, though, my love for the field won out. That you could see, and touch, and remove the disease that you diagnosed preoperatively was miraculous to me, and deeply spiritual.

I left residency trained as a surgical oncologist, meaning a general surgeon who specialized in treating cancer, and accepted a position back at the College of Human Medicine in 1986. I was the only woman in surgery in the area at that time, and my practice was soon overwhelmed with patients who had breast problems. There were so many unmet needs for women with this horrific disease, and I thought a lot about limiting my practice to diseases of the breast. This is where my story of an inspirational woman in medicine begins. Her name is Susan Love, MD.

I first met Dr. Love at a reception at the American Medical Women’s Association in the fall of 1986. I knew of Dr. Love because she was an outspoken advocate for women with breast cancer who bucked the culture of surgery to get what she wanted for her patients. She was a pioneer for breast conservation treatment for women with breast cancer, a passion of my own and one that took many years to be accepted as the standard of care by the surgical field, even though multiple clinical trials had proven its efficacy.

At that reception, which took place on a steamboat on the Mississippi River, I talked to her about my dilemma…a practice with many women with breast problems wanting a woman surgeon, and a chairman who, like many chairs at the time, resented general surgeons who focused on only one organ, full of the macho belief that general surgeons should “do everything.” Dr. Love and I talked about all of the neglected aspects of treatment for women with breast cancer…lack of honest surgical treatment options, insensitivity to sexual concerns, denial that young women could get breast cancer, dismissal of emotional impacts…and it became clear to me that I had to make the transition. She was incredibly supportive and encouraging of my desires. “Besides,” she said, “it’s really fun.”

And it was, although it was not fun to inform my chair in January of my intent as of July, 1987. He told me that I couldn’t do that. I listened to his many reasons and replied, “Well, I’ve already made the decision, so what you have to decide is whether I can do this in your department, or whether I need to look for a new job.” To make a long story short, I became a breast specialist at CHM in July, 1987.

Dr. Love, who I soon began calling Susan, and I saw each other at many conferences, and we served together on several national committees over the years. She was excellent in every way. Brilliant, a true leader, and incredibly funny. Like many surgeons, including myself, she was also profoundly irreverent.

At one meeting of the American College of Surgeons early in my career, for instance, we found each other among the approximately 10,000 surgeons who attended this meeting. This wasn’t hard, as we were two of the few participants in the sea of blue and black sports coats who were wearing brightly colored clothes. A surgeon was giving a paper on the poorer prognosis of women who were operated on for breast cancer during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. This paper had multiple flaws in the study design and we both doubted its validity. So, Susan went to the audience microphone and asked, “Have you studied whether the menstrual cycle of the surgeon makes a difference?”

This comment is the epitome of her spirit, her cleverness, her humor, and her brilliance. Without ever practicing together, she had a profound and deeply meaningful impact on my career. She inspired me to be brave and to stand up for my patients and for what I believe in. For this, I am eternally grateful.

Well, I am not going to top that, so on to the news:

  • Data from the 60,000 vaccination attestation survey responses reveals that 98% of MSU faculty, staff, and students are either fully vaccinated (90%) or have one of two shots (8%). Follow this data and Early Detection Program results at the MSU Dashboard. You can find more information and FAQs at the Together We Will site.
  • We continue to talk to our partners and watch the COVID-19 data in Kent and Ottawa Counties as Grand Fondo starts on September 18. If you are riding, you should probably get some time in the saddle, and if you are not riding, consider donating to skin cancer research here. You can see the kind of work your money supports in Jamie Bernard’s Town Hall.
  • The Culture of Caring is pleased to host two virtual events for the return of their speaker series. A free screening of the documentary feature film,  This Might Hurt! follows Dr. Howard Schubiner, a clinical professor of medicine at CHM, as he works with several chronic pain patients using a new, science-based treatment for calming the nervous system and unlearning pain. You are invited to a Culture of Caring Town Hall featuring Dr. Schubiner as a panelist on September 21, 2021, from 6-7 p.m.
  • We are going to give the Town Hall the day off next Friday, September 17. I will be doing the university’s make-up graduation ceremony for masters and PhDs that afternoon. Be sure to join us on September 24 celebrating Women in Medicine Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month with Duke transplant surgeon Lisa McElroy, MD (CHM ’09), and Liz Lyon, EdD. The Town Hall will catch up with next week’s essayist, Herminia Bierema, MD (CHM ’84), in the coming weeks.
  • Many of our partnering hospitals have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases in the last few weeks. And, nearly all counties in Michigan have “substantial or high” levels of COVID-19 transmission, so by the CDC guidelines, nearly all of us are wearing masks indoors and in public. May you and yours be vaccinated.
  • Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. I recall watching the events of that morning as I was rounding at the hospital. As our team moved from room to room, we would get an update on the tragedies from the news coverage on the patient’s television. It was pretty tough for anyone to focus. At some point in the morning, I remember telling the team that for the day it was enough for us to just keep patients safe rather than trying to make progress in their care. As I think about the time since then, keeping people safe still seems like enough.

Serving the people with you,


Aron Sousa, MD
Interim Dean

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