American Muslim Female Neurosurgeon Is Paying It Forward

Dr. Zarina Ali loves the exhilaration she feels when scrubbing into brain or spine surgery knowing she has a chance to make a big difference in life and death situations for her patients. Even with the long hours of razor-sharp focus needed, she wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

But as a mother of three children – with another one on the way – she is uniquely qualified as the first female neurosurgeon at Pennsylvania Hospital in Center City to help encourage female medical students to pursue the specialty she enjoys so much.

According to American Board of Neurological Surgery statistics, in the United States there are only 219 board-certified female neurosurgeons, 25 full-time female academic neurosurgeons, and only one female chair of a neurosurgery department. Ali, herself, was one of at most three female doctors in her neurosurgery residency at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania – with no female mentors to guide them.

Now as an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the hospital, many young female medical students have turned to Ali, 34, for mentorship advice as they confront concerns about a career in neurosurgery, including the demanding work hours, a long training commitment, and worry about having time to start a family.

From the O.R. to motherhood

Ali knows from experience what that juggling act looks like. Married between college and medical school in May 2004, she gave birth to her first son at the end of her postgraduate Year Three training in June 2012. Two years later, in November 2014, she had surprise identical twins. Now, the Queen Village resident is expecting her fourth child soon.

“It is very dynamic process. I recognize it needs to be fluid to do what I want to do in my life, both work and personal,” she said.

What that means for Ali is that there are times when she is more focused on being a mom, like when her twins were in the neonatal intensive care unit for three months after being born with complications of prematurity. Other times, she concentrates more on her career development. As a neurosurgeon, Ali specializes in intracranial brain tumors, degenerative spine surgery, peripheral nerve surgery, entrapment neuropathy, brain trauma, and spinal stenosis.

For her, balancing work and family life is all about strategic planning. Both times she gave birth she was scheduled to be working on research so she was protected from clinical responsibilities and didn’t have to worry about long hours in the operating room as she was adjusting to motherhood.

She admits though that balancing kids and career really takes a village. Her husband is very involved with their children and they have a full-time nanny.

“I knew working 80 hours a week as a resident I couldn’t be the primary caretaker of my children,” she said. “I knew I needed a lot of resources to help. Life throws a lot of curveballs and there are a lot of things we can’t control. You need to have the foresight to plan ahead for unexpected sick days and snow days, for example.”

“Sometimes I feel like I am running a mini corporation just to take care of my kids, but I still know what my kids had for breakfast yesterday even if I wasn’t there,” she added. “It doesn’t make me less of a mother.”

In actuality, Ali feels like she has learned so much from her kids that they have helped shape the doctor she has become.

“My children have taught me resilience and perseverance,” she said. “My personal life has helped me to understand and appreciate my patients in a different way than when I started my training.”


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