Spreading Light

By Elizabeth Lahti, MD


There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

-Edith Wharton


I never thought much about mentorship as a young woman. In high school and college I gravitated towards teachers and professors who stood out to me for two reasons: love of subject and ability to engage. Some were men; some were women. Although I didn’t think of them as mentors, they inspired me to pursue what I loved, which at that time was language and literature. In my early life, my mentor was my mother. Although she was not in medicine, she embodied the qualities of what I now see as a mentor: an experienced and trusted advisor who comes from a place of selflessness and love.


Attending medical school was never on my radar; I gravitated toward humanities, not science. The only science class I took in college was Geology and I barely passed. I taught high school English and Spanish for several years, then had the life changing experience of volunteering with a surgical mission in Arequipa, Peru. I translated for nurses and surgeons. I watched my father operate on men and women who had walked for days to the small hospital in the outskirts of the city. The human stories were palpable, and I was inspired to pursue a new love—medicine.


When I started medical school just before the new millennium, I was eager to become a surgeon—like my father. I requested an advisor from the general surgery department and joined the Society of Prospective Surgeons. I sewed pig’s feet in my free time, practiced tying knots with scavenged sutures, and planned my clerkship schedule around a surgery rotation. My male advisor met me once. He said “Surgery is a rigorous specialty for a woman. Especially if you want to have a family.” I never went back to his office. It wasn’t until my fourth year of medical school that I found a mentor. I had discovered a love for the detective work and patient stories in internal medicine. My mentor was an accomplished female internist. She believed in me. She had the ability to reflect back my own hopes, strengths and vision. I sometimes wonder though, if she had been a surgeon, would I be one now?


Time passes in a perplexing way, and my student days are a distant past. Professionally, I am firmly ensconced in mid-career, the same way I personally find myself in mid-life. Over the years I have learned how to seek out mentorship, especially female mentors. I have discovered how important it is to have many different kinds of mentors. Those who are a generation ahead of me help me see the big picture, the arc of a professional life. They are the wise mothers of my career. The ones just a few years ahead of me are like big sisters, navigating the ins and outs of my current position. These peer and near-peer mentors are the biggest boost to me: they are the sounding boards, the co-conspirators, the cheerleaders, and the friends of my life in medicine.


The biggest surprise in navigating my professional life as a woman in medicine, has been the absolute joy in my transition from being a mentee to being a mentor. The same way that my own three children teach me daily about how to grow and change in my personal world, the mentees in my professional life give me perspective, hope, and a palpable reason to show up each day. I have been inspired by mentees to change my own career path. I am energized by my mentees’ incredible vision of a future filled with humanity and love in the delivery of health care. I am humbled by the stories of how my presence in their early professional lives has mattered. On days that I flounder and search for meaning, I only need to reach out to them. When Edith Wharton writes that there are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it, I am grateful for the mothers and sisters in medicine who let me shine as the candle, but mostly I am grateful that in my current stage of life and career, I have found the joy in being the mirror for so many incredible young women who will change the world.


Elizabeth Pepper Lahti, MD







By Megan Furnari, MD


I used to be a dancer, choreographer, creative entrepreneur, a true renaissance woman who dabbled in many things.

Now I wake up, sometimes with confusion in my head or body around what time of day or night it is. The overnight shifts and 24-hour calls have taken their toll on my Circadian rhythms and the wrinkles around my eyes. Energy lingers in my body often: hunger from a missed meal, dehydration, a hard patient outcome that didn’t leave my system, telling another boyfriend it isn’t going to work. I get up and greet the day. I’m a doctor now.

*   *   *

In my previous life, I was most successful in the humanities. Creative new ventures were my bread and butter – writing and directing neighborhood plays, founding a singing group, choreographing and performing an interpretive dance about the science and art of human connection. I was fascinated by systems, intricate patterns in the natural world and how to explore their beauty. I spent hours reading prose of transcendental poets, dove into a focused study of plant anatomy and photosynthesis, pushed my physical body to run a marathon after years of competitive gymnastics. The heart and architecture of life lit a fire in my being and I couldn’t deny the epinephrine surge inside myself around learning, innovating, and creating.

*   *   *

The medical journey was not natural to my form and didn’t match my strengths in the conventional sense. My enchantment with the creative would have led most to a different career, but my heart led me to medical school. After watching my own brother’s life unfold and end over twenty years inside a famous Boston hospital, my own heart ached to be what his medical team was to our family. Yet my nature was oriented toward a healer’s approach to illness focused on sacred space, ritual, and story. I was a relic of the past, and the language of modern medicine was foreign. Over the years of medical school and residency, a difficult energy descended and my spirit became confused, lost, and purposeless. At such times, when uncertain if your happiness and worth are valued in the process of becoming a doctor, help is hard to ask for. I failed more than once and could have left, but stayed. I am stubborn and driven and saw worth in bringing nourishment, intention and humanity to modern medicine.

*   *   *

Where did I fit then and where do I fit now? I chose pediatrics for kindness and encouragement. Fear of failing constantly, harsh treatment, hazing, surgery work hours, and years of sleepless nights didn’t appeal to me in that moment. I watched my girlfriends from every part of my life pursue residencies in OBGYN. I felt under-qualified and too burned out to follow that path despite knowing it was my dream. And so I’m a pediatrician with a passion for OBGYN working as a neonatal hospitalist, a hybrid between the two worlds.

*   *   *

Throughout this process of pushing and pulling, changing form, morphing identities, I found my way again. I started a women’s leadership program for female medical students to have skills and community to navigate this healthcare system in ways I’d never seen or had available. We tell stories, share the beautiful and painful moments, and give voice to the previously unspoken challenges facing women in medicine. I know now my own medical school experience was not unique, that other women share similar stories. This reflection you are reading is the product of an inspired female medical student in the program who approached me about creating a book of female physician narratives. I was impressed with her vision and professional approach. Her eyes bright, her voice passionate and presence humble. She told me her dreams of weaving together stories of women in medicine from different levels of training, a collective sharing. Then she asked if I would write something. Honored and unsure what to share from my own struggle, I agreed because she believed in me, and maybe my voice would empower another.

*   *   *

Being brave is what I’ve learned. My fellow warrior women are medical students, eager and determined to explore vulnerability, courage, and the power of healing. Together, we are learning to embrace who we truly are without the fear of failing. It’s been hard for me to believe I deserve the best in my life, relationships, and career after years of denial. Now, I heal and share my process in order to help myself and others rise up after years of self-critique and feeling inadequate. I am enough.

*   *     *

I end with the story of my own mentor. She arrived in the form of an internist, creating innovative change around writing and narrative in medical school, just in time. Her love of story caught my attention, her creative energy infectious and her smile bright. I was immediately in love with her reflective work that created a space for true authentic sharing, paving the way for my own spirit to manifest more fully. We spent more time together and I watched her be in her life, the first doctor I’d seen who was actually happy. I had all but given up on finding kindred spirits and female mentors, yet here she was before I’d lost all hope. Now, together we ride the ocean of healthcare on a large ship with powerful, strong women students. Intermittently, someone is tossed into the waves and we throw out the life preserver. We are a formidable team, always there when the wind changes or rations run low. This is the work I want to do for the rest of my life.

Re-empowering a woman who has lost her sense of worth on the way to becoming a doctor can change a life, or many, as it goes in doctoring. Writing my own story has returned some of that momentum, power, vital force lost along the way. The creative innovator inside of me is back after a long hibernation and will not sleep again.


***I thank Allison Munn and her courage to create the space for this reflection. I know she has and will continue to change the lives of many more women physicians through her own clinical and creative work.

Learning this Language

By Allison Munn, MD candidate 2019


I used to be an English Language teacher.

Now I wake up in a rush, postponing hair-washings one extra day, smelling the milk and pretending to ignore the carton date, hurrying out the door with a quick heartfelt kiss to my husband and an armful of things I plan to stuff into my bag on the way. I’m a medical student now.

* * *

In my previous life I stood before a classroom of university students, confident, assertive. Now, depending on the day and my mood or level of sleep, I might shrink and stay small, quiet. Why, I ask myself? I’m not sure – but it becomes my new norm. Do I think I shouldn’t be here? No, that’s not it. I’m just too tired some days to learn this new language and the rules of this foreign culture.

I find myself worrying the level of adulthood I claimed for myself in my teacher days is regressing… I’m striving to return to that self, but this time facing different obstacles, ones that require interpreting before tackling. Help would be good, I think, but I don’t know where to look and I’m afraid to ask – is that culturally appropriate here? It seems everyone does things on his or her own, so I try. But as I try, I start to feel less mature, more on edge, like a teenager, sometimes a child. I wish I’d asked.

* * *

Goodness gracious, this lady needs guidance, perhaps they say to themselves, as they look at my dark under eyes, listening to my jumbled speech and struggling to follow my circuitous thoughts. Is the feeling of inadequacy plastered across my face? My husband tells me my face says everything, so I’m guessing it is. This time my face tells them what I need.

* * *

I want to know what I want to do. I’m interested in Dr. A’s field, so I shadow her, Division Chief of her specialty. She’s friendly but completely intimidating, a total powerhouse and everything I would love to be if I could. She’s casual and joking, but has high expectations. I’m not ready to navigate that landscape, and I shrink. When I run into her later, I get tongue-tied and feel much more inept than I actually am. I should have handled this differently, I think.

* * *

In a proactive moment of determination, I contact Dr. B, the surgeon I haven’t met but would like to meet, to talk about research, which I haven’t really done but would like to learn to do. I think I need to open with an apology – I don’t have much experience…to let her know not to expect too much of me. I anticipate her to be hard, to exude that feeling of constant evaluation because she’s the surgeon and I’m the student. But she surprises me – she’s relaxed, approachable. She gives me two projects and shows me how to get started. I leave thinking I might actually be able to do this thing called “research”…

She checks in, following my projects, making edits to my paper. Each time we meet I feel more comfortable and start to ask her other questions about medicine and life. I feel like she really wants to teach me, and that feeling is invaluable.

* * *

I join a Women’s Leadership group. There I meet Dr. C, a NICU physician and the group leader. Our first group meeting changes things for me – I am a Woman in Medicine. Why has no one told me this before?! Told me that it would be difficult? More importantly, that it is valuable??

She is welcoming and supportive, and yet again I find myself jumbled, like I’m re-learning this language for the first time. Despite her relaxed demeanor, I still feel like the student – I want to just be a person, but I can’t shake the hierarchy ingrained in me. I watch her wear exhaustion with grace, in awe of her ability to juggle 24-hour shifts with her vision to change the system and empower women, and embrace creativity, and oh, personal wellness – she works on that, too. That kind of balance and energy seems unattainable to me, and yet at the same time, is completely inspiring.

When I share my idea, I expect to see a look on her face that says I’m silly for thinking I could do this. She takes me seriously, she takes notes, she helps me plan. I still feel jumbled, but now also justified and supported.

She connects me with her own mentor, Dr. D, who I begin to consider one of mine as well. She is quick to help, support, laugh. I mentally note the qualities she radiates, ones I hope to have one day. I think how lucky her patients are, to have a physician who can treat and care and be a real person with them all at once. Together, I sit with them and absorb the energy of empowered women physicians who have maintained a sense of self. I didn’t think that was possible, but apparently it is, if you try.

* * *

I’m about to start rotations and feel lost in yet another foreign territory. I follow Dr. E on rounds one day. This is the first time we’ve met, but I immediately feel she is a good teacher – her voice and mannerisms are all kindness and support and she knows her stuff. She gives me advice. “Always carry food with you!!!” How does she know the questions I’m too embarrassed to ask?? The next day, I go to the store to stock up on granola bars.

* * *

I’m still making mistakes, but I’m feeling more confident and whole these days. I’m learning to ask, to demand more of myself and of this no-longer-unfamiliar system that chips at my exterior, testing if I can withstand this climate. My eyes are adjusting to see stoic faces as weathered guides, appreciating the challenges and struggles of empowered women before me who have made the journey and now extend an open hand.

I, too, look back at my steps thus far. I think about the women that continue to guide me. With their help, I am finding my way.

And maybe one day, when I am so fluent in this language I’m dreaming in it, I can help someone like me.