Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Authors note: On Oct. 22, WINS celebrated its 30th anniversary with a remarkable Zoom Happy Hour. As part of that evening, I was asked to make a few comments that I am pleased to share with a broader audience.
I can’t express how Women in Neurosurgery (WINS) has supported me, shaped my career and inspired me. It allowed me to get to know pioneers like Carole A. Miller, MD; Alexa I. Canady, MD; Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD, FAANS; Ruth Kerr Jakoby, MD; and Linda Sternau, MD.
Then there is my special group of contemporaries, Gail L. Rosseau, MD; Karin M. Muraszko, MD; and Edie E. Zusman, MD, FAANS FACS — who met at every national meeting to provide unwavering support, friendship and honesty. A special toast to you!
A special toast to those who took the foundation we created for WINS and raised it to new heights, especially Jamie S. Ullman, MD, FAANS, FACS; Susan C. Pannullo, MD, FAANS; Shelly D. Timmons, MD, PhD, FAANS, FACS; and Aviva Abosch, MD, PhD, FAANS.
Now there is the next generation with their fresh energy and enthusiasm — Martina Stippler, MD, FAANS, FACS; Ellen L. Air, MD, PhD, FAANS; Maya Babu, MD, MBA; Sharona Ben-Haim, MD; Jennifer A. Sweet, MD, FAANS, FACS; Sarah I. Woodrow, MD, FAANS; Krystal L. Tomei, MD, MPH, FAANS; and so many more!
A special nod to Katie O. Orrico, Esq. (AANS/CNS Washington Office) and Chris A. Philips (AANS staff, retired) who, while not neurosurgeons, deserve credit for their efforts as well.
Now for what Dr. Stippler asked me to do, let me take you back to the world of neurosurgery in 1989. Most neurosurgical programs had never trained/graduated a woman, and few of us in training had another woman in our programs. Less than five programs had women as faculty. Conference lectures frequently included images of naked women (and worse). It was a time when you walked around the meetings and saw no other women who were neurosurgeons.
Then came a fateful resident luncheon program. I found my way to an empty table toward the back of the room (as usual, I knew no one else in the sea of faces) when the miracle happened — another woman joined me at the table! Before we could even sit down, yet another woman appeared. I can’t speak for the other two (BTW, it happened to be Drs. Rosseau and Muraszko), but I couldn’t wait for the honored guest to finish talking. It was truly remarkable to be in the company of two other female neurosurgeons. The program ended, the men exited, but the three of us chatted on — soon magnetically joined by several other women. We made the impromptu decision to meet for a drink and to invite any other female neurosurgeon we could.
On Nov. 1, 1989, this small group gathered and made the brave decision to form an organization — WINS. I was selected to lead this endeavor — I was starting two years of research, was pregnant and still took considerable call but had less on my plate than others. With my trusty Mac Plus (with a whopping 1 MB of RAM), I contacted all known women in neurosurgery and invited them to join WINS. I keep a file with the return postcards I included with my introductory letter — I still get teary when I take out that folder and read the hopeful and encouraging words. I compiled a directory (with just a total of 19 women included), created the first newsletter (Dec. 1989), and planned the first meeting. Boy, was I clueless on the logistics and ended up footing a pretty hefty bill (despite promises to break even to my husband).
On Oct. 22, 1990, WINS held its first “official” meeting in Los Angeles during the CNS Annual Meeting. My daughter Dina attended and can be seen in her stroller in the photos, while my son Daniel attended but was still a few months off from birth. We ratified a charter and by-laws and set meaningful goals.
Within the first year, the directory had grown to 33 members, including the first international member, Yoko Kato, MD, and I had turned over the reins to my medical school classmate Kym Chandler, MD.
Beyond the financial promise I made to my husband, I vowed to keep my involvement in WINS secret — understanding that this organization could be seen as threatening and its members automatically being labeled as feminists, agitators, or worse. During my chief resident year, my chair approached me to inform me of this new group he thought I should join — WINS! So at least this promise kept!
The Heights WINS Has Helped Me Reach
I am so proud of what WINS has accomplished. I would not have survived residency nor succeeded in my early career without the many gifts that WINS gave. Working on projects like the 10th anniversary “So You Want to be a Neurosurgeon” brochure and the 20th anniversary “Heart of a Lion, Hands of a Woman-What Women Neurosurgeons Do” were joyful and rewarding. However, it took relocating to Cleveland to learn just how powerful this organization’s work has been. Let me close by sharing what I learned.
After speaking as the guest at a town hall opening our high-profile women’s staff conference, I took questions from the audience. A high-ranking physician at the Cleveland Clinic stated that when our White Paper was published in 2008, it served as the roadmap for how the Cleveland Clinic would address their need and desire to increase the proportion and advancement of women physicians. She applauded how thoughtful and practical the manuscript was. Her question was: “How had it all come about, and how had we summoned up the courage to put it all out there?” Before I could answer, the keynote speaker chimed in that within anesthesia, she and her female colleagues took this work to their leadership and launched their efforts to secure a brighter future for women in that specialty. Others joined the chorus before they gave me the chance to speak. That was probably fortuitous because I was utterly verklempt (that means choked up in Yiddish). As physicians, we have touched and changed many lives, but as WINS, we have helped to change the world.
From humble beginnings to secret meetings in Los Angeles to this 30th celebration — WINS has been woven into my entire neurosurgery career — something for which I am profoundly grateful. Let me end with the quote I used in the introduction for our book:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Editor’s note: We hope that you will share what you learn from our posts. We invite you to be part of the conversation on Twitter by following and using the hashtags #CelebratingWINSat30 #WomenInNeurosurgery.
Deborah L. Benzil, MD, FAANS, FACS
First President, WINS, 1990
Cleveland Clinic, Vice-Chair, Neurosurgery