In recent years there has been increased awareness of the impending need for more primary care physicians in the workforce, but there is also the need for surgical specialists and primary care subspecialists. In the coming weeks, we will feature some of our alumni and friends of Oakwood University who are currently pursuing careers in various subspecialties where there is a greater need for an African American presence.
Dr. Zaria Murrell was born in Brooklyn NY, and is the eldest of five children. She was raised in Queens, NY, before attending college at Howard University. She completed her medical education at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Although she herself, is not a graduate of Oakwood University, 2 of her siblings and her husband – Michael are, and she served the Huntsville area for several years as a general and bariatric surgeon before going back into the trenches for fellowship. She is the proud mother of two children and enjoys running long distances, studying God’s word, travelling to foreign countries with her family, and participating in medical missionary work. She is currently a pediatric surgery fellow at the University of Louisville.
HealthOU: What are some of the factors that influenced your decision to pursue a career in surgery?
I have always loved fixing things… a career in surgery is rewarding in that I know I have helped correct something that is wrong and is causing pain to the patients: whether it is repairing an hernia, treating a baby born with gastroschisis (intestines protruding through a hole in the abdominal wall) with a silo followed by a gradual return of the intestines to the abdominal cavity with closure of the abdominal wall defect, or an appendectomy for acute appendicitis, I am always excited about being used as an instrument to bring healing to a variety of patients with surgical issues.
HealthOU: As I understand it, you worked as a general surgeon for several years, but later decided to pursue training in several different areas, what motivated that decision?
I have always loved the discipline of pediatric surgery and as a younger surgery resident, I had every intention to enter into the field. However, I was also interested in the new technologies in surgery in the areas of laparoscopic and robotic surgery as I advanced through residency. So when the time came to make a decision, I chose a fellowship in mininally invasive (laparoscopic) surgery. When I completed my fellowship, I was married with an infant and my husband wanted to return to college to study theology at Oakwood College. We moved to Huntsville and I worked as a laparoscopic and bariatric surgeon for 7 years there. But after being in practice for 5 years and working with a pediatric surgeon that had moved to Huntsville, my heartstrings were pulling me back to pediatric surgery and in the Fall of 2008 I decided to enter the pediatric surgery match. Realizing that I was not a competitive applicant when I didn’t match in Spring of 2009, God provided me the opportunity to become the Fetal Surgery Fellow and then the Pediatric Vascular Anomalies Fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) from Fall 2009-June 2011. However, I still needed to complete an accredited pediatric surgery fellowship program. Once again God provided!! Two weeks after completing my Vascular Anomalies Fellowship, in mid-July of 2011, I was working on fetal research projects at CCHMC and I received an email about a sudden opening of an accredited pediatric surgery fellowship position in Louisville, KY. Within hours, I submitted my application, the next day I arrived in Louisville for an interview and by the time I arrived home, I had an email saying I got the job!!! WOW!! So now I am the pediatric surgery fellow at University of Louisville since August 2011 (its a 2 year fellowship). God Rocks!!!
HealthOU: Who were / are some of your professional mentors thus far?
My former surgical partner when I first moved to Huntsville – Dr. Frederick Cason (who is now the chief of surgery at the VA hospital in Cleveland, OH) and of course the spirit-filled pediatric surgeon who felt impressed to come to Huntsville and encouraged me to return to a pediatric surgery fellowship – Dr. James Gilbert! I also have several mentors from my surgical residency at State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn: Drs. Francesca Velcek, Brian Gilchrist and John Kral who also encouraged me to return to pediatric surgery fellowship if that’s where my heart led me.
HealthOU: What’s your biggest motivation?
Jesus…. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
HealthOU: What are some steps a current premed student can take if they’re interested in going into a general surgery or a surgical subspecialty?
If you really enjoy human anatomy, surgery might be the field for you. Try to shadow a surgeon for a day or two to see if you like the environment. Surgery is physically demanding with long days, lots of standing, but is very rewarding!
HealthOU: What are some steps a current medical student can take if they’re interested in going into general surgery or a surgical specialty?
Of course, get good grades in the first two years of medical school.
Be yourself first of all… Search deep inside and ask yourself while on your rotation on surgery, do I really love this and can I live like this? Communicate well with your interns, residents, fellows and attendings. Read about your surgical cases before going to the OR: i.e. know the differential diagnosis for right lower or upper quadrant pain. Don’t be afraid to ask thoughtful questions.
HealthOU: What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were an undergraduate? I had good study habits, was very disciplined in college and had opportunities to work at the local hospital which was a great experience.
College is a great time to make lasting friendships and to enjoy ‘growing up,’ but study habits formed in college will have an impact on you in medical school, so choose wisely!
Take an MCAT review course or study as many questions as you can get your hands on: a good MCAT score can make all the difference in obtaining scholarships!
HealthOU: What do you think are some of the reasons that there are so few minorities in surgical specialties?
There are few minorities in medicine but considering that only about 10-15% of each medical school class goes into the discpline of surgery it makes for a small number.
But there are more than you think: the Society of Black Academic Surgeons provides mentors in surgery. Check out their website.
HealthOU: What does a typical day for you entail?
As a pediatric surgery fellow, I typical arrive at work at 05:45 to round on babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), then do surgery rounds with the residents from 06:30-07:30; NICU teaching rounds from 07:30-08:00, then, depending on what cases I have assigned myself and the residents to, we are in the operating room from 08:00- 16:00. In between all the operative cases, we are seeing new consults in the emergency room or NICU, discharging patients that need to go home, etc. It’s quite busy but the day goes by fast!
HealthOU: What advice / insight do you have to offer to a women who are interested in pursuing a career in surgery, and further specializing as you have?
As I said before, choose wisely!! Pray hard and ask God for guidance, realizing that you have to really love surgery to choose such a demanding lifestyle. If you have a husband before entering your chosen discipline, ask him how the long hours away from home affect him.
HealthOU: What advice would you offer to yourself 10 years ago?
Just do it!!! I was slightly intimidated by the competitiveness of getting a pediatric surgery fellowship when I was younger but the truth be told… I wouldn’t change a thing! I love the path I have followed and I have prayed every step of the way. God knew what was best for me!
HealthOU: How do you balance your demanding work schedule and a family?
It’s tough now that I am a fellow again: but spending quality time with the kids on the nights I am home – reading, cooking, doing their homework, and having worship with them, especially now that they are older (my son is 10 and my daughter 8) has been a joy! They have distinctly different personalities and gifts. Also, my kids know that they can call me anytime and if I’m not operating, I will chat with them. My husband is a Godsend made just for me! We’ve been married for 11 years and I am still learning more things about him that make me love him more each day!