By Amy Widner
It doesn’t take long for many young girls to be exposed to messages about what girls “can” and “cannot” do.
Thankfully, Heather Pinckard-Dover never got the memo. She is the first female neurosurgeon to complete a residency at UAMS, Arkansas’ only academic health sciences center.
“From the time I was little, my parents were always telling me, ‘you know, a girl can do anything a boy can do,’ so I never really paid attention to gender roles or saw being a woman as a limit to anything I ever wanted to do,” Pinckard-Dover said. “I’ve always just gone through life with that message at heart. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized not every girl gets that talk.”
Pinckard-Dover decided to become a doctor at age 5. She spent most of her childhood in Pine Bluff, where school started to feel easy and she wanted more of a challenge. She applied for the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts (ASMSA) in Hot Springs and attended for her junior and senior year. It was at ASMSA, which offers accelerated courses for gifted students in a residential high school setting, that the light bulb truly went off about what she might want to do with her life.
“I was a senior taking biomedical physics and we were learning about electricity. My teacher pulled up a video of a man who had gotten a deep brain stimulator for Parkinson’s disease and I just sat there and literally watched his tremors go away,” Pinckard-Dover said. “He switched on his device and was suddenly able to drink from a cup and hold a pen and write.
“I’d never seen anything in medicine make such a dramatic difference in someone’s life,” Pinckard-Dover said. “I said, ‘that’s what I want to do.’”
She went to college at Baylor University in Texas, majored in neuroscience and found a local cardiologist who agreed to mentor her. When it was time to apply for medical school at UAMS, she got in. Not long afterward, Erika Petersen, M.D., started working in the Department of Neurosurgery. An expert in procedures like deep brain stimulation and a female neurosurgeon in a still male-dominated field, Petersen was happy to help.
“During my second year of medical school, she really took me under her wing and showed me what functional neurosurgery was all about,” Pinckard-Dover said. “She showed me the ropes, both in terms of surgery and guiding me around some of the obstacles you can run into as a woman in neurosurgery.”
When it was time to apply for residency, Pinckard-Dover chose neurosurgery at UAMS. She got to work side-by-side with Petersen, who is now the first female neurosurgeon in Arkansas with the rank of professor, and other members of the neurosurgery team.
Even with great mentorship, the seven-year journey through a neurosurgery residency is no walk in the park. Pinckard-Dover still remembers the first few nerve-wracking weeks and months of being on her own to figure things out for the first time. She remembers the occasional patient or attending physician who didn’t realize she was the neurosurgeon or doubted her abilities. This was especially true in spine surgery, where there were long-standing beliefs that women weren’t strong enough to perform some of the procedures. Power tools leveled the playing field, and Pinckard-Dover has built up her strength to the point where she no longer needs them anyway. She also remembers sometimes being treated like she was being bossy or pushy and wondering if she really did anything differently that her male peers.
It has been a long road, but for the last two years she has been co-chief resident with Jerry Walters, M.D. Both finished their residencies in July. Pinckard-Dover said it definitely helped with her journey that the UAMS Department of Neurosurgery under Chair J.D. Day is more diverse than most in the specialty.
Pinckard-Dover said Day sets the right tone for the whole department.
“I don’t see applicants as men/women or by their race – none of that matters as long as the person is dedicated, passionate about neurosurgery and is willing to fight for their patients and their career goals,” Day said. “Heather, Jerry and some of our other residents didn’t always have the support they needed or the examples to look to along their paths to becoming neurosurgeons, but they did it anyway. I like having people on my team with that kind of grit. It tells me they have what it takes to get through residency and be a neurosurgeon.”
Pinckard-Dover is moving on next for a functional neurosurgery fellowship to study deep brain stimulation at the University of Florida, Gainesville, under Kelly Foote, M.D. She will study its use for psychiatric disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tourette’s syndrome and is hoping to complete research on its use for obesity. She hopes to return to Arkansas.
Even though Pinckard-Dover is proud of her accomplishments, the mantle of “first female neurosurgery resident” from UAMS doesn’t always feel quite right. Robin Lynn Mitchell was killed in 2004 before she could finish her neurosurgery residency at UAMS.
“She was truly the first female to navigate the system, to tear down some of those walls,” Pinckard-Dover said. “I always want to give her true credit as the first, because her contributions to UAMS have not been forgotten.”