When Julie Freischlag, M.D., was only 6 years old, she skipped first grade … and got a few words of advice from her grandfather.
“He told me at that time that people are going to say you can’t do this, and you’re going to tell then that you can,” Freischlag said.
As the keynote speaker for the 18th annual Marjorie S. Sirridge, M.D., Outstanding Women in Medicine Lecture on Thursday, Sept. 10, Freischlag talked about resilience and how she has spent a lifetime rising above the stacked odds to become a surgeon and role model for women in medicine.
She currently serves as dean of the school of medicine and vice chancellor for human health sciences at the University of California-Davis.
While in college, Freischlag opted to go to medical school rather than become a high school biology teacher when the college closed its education program, believing it was producing too many teachers. She entered Rush Medical School with the idea of becoming a pediatrician. During her clinical rotations, Freischlag discovered her passion for surgery and decided to become a surgeon instead — a rarity for women at the time.
When she attended her surgery residency interview at the UCLA medical school in 1979, she was the only woman in the audience.
“Today, there are many women,” Freischlag said. “About half of our candidates for surgery are women, now.”
Throughout her career, Freischlag continued to smash through the glass ceiling for women, becoming just the second female vascular surgery fellow at UCLA and only the sixth woman in the country certified for vascular surgery. She became the first woman in the vascular surgery division at University of California-San Diego; the first woman chief of vascular surgery at UCLA; the first woman to achieve the rank of professor of surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin; and, eventually, the first woman chair of surgery and the first woman William Stewart Halsted Professor of Surgery at Johns Hopkins. She is also the first woman to chair the Board of Regents of the American College of Surgeons and the first woman president of the Society for Vascular Surgeons.
During her 11-year stay at Johns Hopkins, Freischlag was the only woman to chair a clinical department.
“It really was a concrete ceiling,” she said. “There were a lot of chances that I took with that job and getting there. And a lot of people took chances on me.”
Freischlag currently oversees academic, research and clinical programs in the UC-Davis Health System that include the schools of medicine and nursing, a 1,000-member physician practice group, and the UC Davis Medical Center.
She said that women in medicine should no longer be invisible, and that more women need to be encouraged to enter the arenas of medicine and science.
“The key ingredient is resilience, that ability to bounce back,” Freischlag said. “Resiliency transforms us.”