Nashville, TN (WSMV) – In the summer of 2019, St Thomas Health hired its first ever female heart surgeon. Her gender put Dr. Amber Edwards immediately in the minority in her field.
“Cardiac surgery is rigorous,” says Dr. Edwards. “The hours are long and the complications are significant.”
In 2017, women comprised nearly a quarter of heart surgery residents and fellows. However, women only account for seven percent of active surgeons. The number suggests a steep decline due to the rigorous nature of training programs.
“People are going to tell you ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you shouldn’t do this’, ‘ you’re never going to be able to get married, no one’s going to want to marry you, you’re never going to be able to have kids, you’re never going to be a professor, you’re never going to be the chief,’” says Edwards as she reflects on her own journey to becoming a heart surgeon.
It took fourteen years of higher education to land Edwards where she is today, including three years to receive her undergraduate degree, four years in medical school and seven years in residency and research.
“I always wanted to be a surgeon ever since I knew surgery was an option,” says Edwards. “Cardiac surgery also requires a lot of thinking – being almost an ICU doctor at the same time as being a surgeon.”
Edwards was born and raised in a rural area of Eastern North Carolina. During her childhood, undergrad and medical school, Edwards says she stayed in a small area.
“I lived in the same 60 mile radius my whole life,” says Edwards.
Residency took her to Rochester, New York where she served as an integrated cardiothoracic surgery intern at the University of Rochester. Edwards says her six-year residency program became seven years as she spent one year researching clinical outcomes of devices using cadavers.
During that time, Edwards stayed in touch with her mentor from East Carolina University, Dr. Evelio Rodriguez. Rodriguez had become a cardiac surgeon at Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital and encouraged Edwards to apply for a position within the hospital system. Edwards was hired in the summer of 2019.
“We are so happy to be here and like it’s been fun making this our fun and sort of exploring.”
The move to Nashville was accompanied by a development in her personal life. At the end of her residency, Edwards and her husband became parents to their first child, Joseph, who was born in March 2019.
“Pregnancy was incredibly difficult to do as a cardiac surgery resident,” says Edwards. “I pushed myself and I had some scares with pre-term labor which is very common in women physicians.”
Edwards says becoming a mom has made her feel more connected to her patients – especially women – who often receive few correct diagnoses as it deals with coronary artery disease.
“I’ve had a strong connection to taking care of women,” says Edwards. “So many women say [to] me ‘I’m so happy that I have a woman surgeon!’ It’s a sisterhood – especially in this era.”
Edwards says her all-female staff at St. Thomas Midtown Hospital have been supportive and helpful in her transition to life in a new city with a new baby.
“My office staff and everybody, they’re just so friendly,” says Edwards. “[They say] ‘if there’s anything you need, let us know!’”
Edwards works primarily out of the Midtown Hospital and continues to build her practice.
“I just want to be a really good surgeon, you know help as many people as I can.”