Daughter. Wife. Mother. Surgeon. These are just a few of the many roles neurosurgeon Elisa Kucia, MD, balances from day to day. A proud Wahoo, Dr. Kucia earned her bachelor’s and medical degrees from UVA. She specializes in caring for patients with conditions of the spine, including chronic neck and back pain, cervical and lumbar spinal stenosis, herniated disc, and degenerative disc disease.
About this series: The path to becoming a surgeon is never easy. But for women, who have historically been underrepresented in the field, the barriers to becoming a surgeon are even higher. This March, UVA Health joins the national commemoration of Women’s History Month by celebrating just a few of our history-making female surgeons.
She completed two fellowships: one in pediatric neurosurgery at the University of Colorado Children’s Hospital Colorado, and another in complex spine surgery at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
COMBINING COMPASSION WITH CONFIDENCE
Healthy Balance sat down with Kucia, who joined UVA Health 2 years ago, to learn more about her journey to becoming a surgeon. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO GO INTO MEDICINE AS A PROFESSION? AND WHY SURGERY IN PARTICULAR?
My parents always encouraged me to challenge myself and take on hard tasks. And when I was in high school, I was a competitive runner. Unfortunately, injuries are common in competitive running, so I had some experience with the healthcare system as a patient when I had to get X-rays or bone scans. It was intriguing to see inside the body. That inspired me.
But most of all, I wanted to do something meaningful where I could hopefully make a positive impact in somebody's life. I’ve always liked the idea that I could use my hands and physical capabilities to try to make somebody better.
Q: WHAT QUALITIES DOES IT TAKE TO BE A SUCCESSFUL SURGEON?
First, you have to have compassion. You have to get to know your patients and try to help them in all different ways – whether you’re supporting a cancer patient who is dying, or trying to help an older patient whose back pain keeps them from being as active as they once were. It’s important to listen to patients and understand their health goals. And second, it’s important to have confidence in yourself and in your skills. At the same time, you can’t be too proud to ask for help. In the end, you're only one person. You can't do your job without the people around you. For example, I can't do my job without the nurses and other providers, or even the person who schedules patients. It’s important to appreciate everyone around you.
At the time that I was in medical school, UVA had never trained a female neurosurgery resident, and there were no female neurosurgeons on staff.
Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY ROLE MODELS? IF SO, HOW DID THEY IMPACT YOUR DECISION TO BECOME A SURGEON?
My parents are my biggest role models. They were both hard workers and taught me to work hard and challenge myself. My mom's a Midwest farm girl, and she taught me about being kind to everybody. She doesn't have an enemy – she’ll walk up and talk to anybody in the grocery store. Seeing her kindness and compassion toward everybody that she met inspired me to want to help other people. My high school track coach also had a big impact on my life. He taught me that you have to believe in yourself to reach your goals.
Q: DO YOU THINK OF YOURSELF AS A ROLE MODEL FOR OTHER WOMEN WHO WANT TO BECOME SURGEONS?
I hope so. One of the things about being a woman in surgery – and especially in neurosurgery – is that it’s hard to make it all happen. It’s hard to juggle all of the pieces, and the parts of this specialty. Sometimes you feel like you're doing a lot of things, but maybe not doing all of them well. I hope that I inspire other women to reach for their dreams and try to make them all happen, whatever they might be.
Q: WHAT ASPECTS OF PRACTICING MEDICINE DO YOU LIKE THE MOST?
I love the successes. There’s nothing more gratifying than having a patient walk back into the clinic and say, “Can I give you a hug?” Whether I successfully removed a brain tumor, or got rid of their pain by doing spine surgery, when they tell me that I changed their life, those are the days when I feel like I’ve made a difference, that I’m doing something good and honorable. Those are, by far, the best days.
Q: WHAT WAS SOMETHING THAT SURPRISED YOU OR THAT YOU DIDN'T EXPECT ABOUT PRACTICING MEDICINE?
Unfortunately, you don't always have control of everything. Even though you try your best, the world isn't always fair. I didn't expect how much I could be challenged to be strong for my patients, who might be dying from something like a brain tumor. Life isn't fair. There's nothing they did to deserve it. I didn't anticipate how much some of those patients would really touch me, and how much I would hurt for them.
Q: HAVE YOU FELT THAT GENDER WAS A BARRIER TO YOUR SUCCESS OR TO BECOMING A SURGEON? WAS IT DIFFICULT TO SUCCEED IN A MALE-DOMINATED FIELD?
Surgery, and especially neurosurgery, has been an extraordinarily male-dominated field. At the time that I was in medical school, UVA had never trained a female neurosurgery resident, and there were no female neurosurgeons on staff. But I never let it bother me, or sway me away from doing what I wanted to do. That goes back to my parents and my coach instilling in me the belief that I could do whatever I wanted to do.
I also never felt that was a barrier to success because I create my own definition of success. For me, success is having a neurosurgery practice where I’m taking care of patients in the community, and then I still have time to spend with my husband and kids. Juggling it all can be hard.
Q: LOOKING BACK, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL YOUR YOUNGER SELF ABOUT THE JOURNEY TO BECOMING A DOCTOR?
You can achieve great things by concentrating on little goals along the way. If you had told me from the beginning all the things that I'd have to go through to get to where I am today, I might have thought, “That's too hard,” or “That will take too long.” It’s all about putting one foot in front of the other and setting small, attainable goals along the way. By doing that, you can achieve big goals in the end.
Q: WHAT KEEPS YOU SANE?
My family. I have an awesome husband who's so supportive of everything that I do. And my kids are great. After a rough day, when I come home and my 3-year-old runs to me with the biggest hug, her smile and laughter are contagious and awesome. And I still enjoy running and staying active. Having that physical outlet helps get rid of the anxiety and stress that builds up throughout the day. But mostly, surrounding myself with supportive, positive people contributes to my sanity.