Dr Nikki Stamp FRACS is a heart and lung surgeon who lives by the motto “work hard and stay focused”. Her super power is “chocolate eating”, and her guilty pleasure watching Netflix in bed; but it’s her tireless dedication to her profession, and support of not only female surgeons but women in all careers that should inspire us. Here Dr Nikki shares with us what it’s like when you decide to take the leap and follow your true passion.
Nikki Stamp first set her sights on becoming a surgeon when she was only a kid. Recalling how she got “side tracked in high school”, and briefly toying with the idea of becoming an accountant; she’s glad she went with her gut and studied medicine. It is, she declares her “dream job”.
Now with a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery with Honours and a Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Dr Stamp is one of only 11% of female specialist surgeons in Australia*.
An advocate for women’s heart health, the author of Can You Die of a Broken Heart?, Pretty Unhealthy, and part of the social media campaign #ILookLikeASurgeon, Dr Nikki is a role model for all women and not just those looking to go into medicine.
Flossi: It takes a long time and a lot of dedication to become a specialist surgeon. Can you tell me about your education and how you got to where you are today?
Dr Nikki: “After high school, I started off studying science, majoring in human biology and human movement, and then transferred to medicine. That was amazing because it was unusual to be able to do that. I studied medicine for six years and then spent around nine years specialising and doing extra training and study to be a heart surgeon.”
Flossi: Why did you specialise as a cardiothoracic surgeon?
Dr Nikki: “I love the technical challenge and I love the subject matter; it always interests me. But working with the patients, and being able to make a huge difference in someone else’s life, is truly incredible and a privilege, and it’s why I do what I do.”
Flossi: What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Dr Nikki: “Far too many to list here! I studied solidly for over 15 years, moved around a lot, at times worked 100-hour weeks, didn’t see enough of friends and family, faced bullying and sexism… honestly, a lot. However, I’m lucky because I’ve had the support of a lot of wonderful people. Also I’m pretty determined, so no matter the issue, I’ve been able to face it. And when I look at where I am now, it’s all been worth it.”
Flossi: I can’t imagine that there is a “typical” work day for you, but what does a day in your work-life look like?
Dr Nikki: “I usually start around 7–7:30 – earlier some days – and see patients. On operating days, I might be involved in two heart operations. The nature of my job is that you never know what’s going to roll through the door, so we’re always ready for something else to happen.”
Flossi: What is the biggest misconception about your job?
Dr Nikki: “Probably the two I come across are that doctors are rich boys who play golf, and that it’s glamorous like TV. It costs a lot of money to become a doctor and a surgeon and very few of us roll in driving a ridiculously expensive motor car. Plus, nobody has time to play golf! TV portrayals are also a long way off the mark, like any dramatisation of a job.”
Flossi: You’re such a positive and passionate advocate for women wanting to pursue a career in medicine. What advice would you give to women who want to become surgeons?
Dr Nikki: “Do it. That’s all. If you want to do it and you can do it, and can make it happen, then why not? And if you don’t succeed in whatever it is you were chasing, at least you tried, and that is actually okay.”
Flossi: With the gift of hindsight, is there any advice you would give to your younger self?
Dr Nikki: “Hang tight; everything will be fine.”
Flossi: The essence of the #ILookLikeASurgeon campaign is “you can’t be what you can’t see”. How do you think it helps women in medicine?
Dr Nikki: “The idea of ‘I Look Like A Surgeon’ was to provide a lot of positivity, and show role models. #ILookLikeASurgeon created support networks, academic collaboration and public visibility in order to entice more people to consider a career as a surgeon, and especially women.”
Flossi: You’ve said that after a heart attack, women have a worse survival rate than men, and that women who are treated by a female doctor are two to three times more likely to survive. Why do you think that is?
Dr Nikki: “The answer isn’t really clear at the moment, and we need further research. In general, though, women do worse than men due to a tendency of health–care professionals and women alike to misinterpret symptoms. There’s also different biology between men and women, and treatments aren’t well tested and probably don’t work as well in women as they do in men.”
Flossi: What should women look out for when it comes to recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack?
Dr Nikki: “The Heart Foundation has a great page on this, which I’d strongly recommend people check out. Essentially, symptoms to be aware of include chest discomfort, shortness of breath, tiredness, pain in the neck or jaw or tummy and not being able to do what you normally can. If anything worries you, get checked out.”
Flossi: Can you give us any tips on the best way to look after our hearts?
Dr Nikki: “It’s really just about the basics; there are no special diets or tips and tricks. Eating well – including lots of veggies, fruit and whole grains – exercising, staying connected to people, sleeping as well as you can, and managing your stress. If you smoke, giving up is the best think you can ever do!”
Dr Nikki has certainly emerged as a beacon for anyone aspiring to achieve what may seem to be an impossible dream. If there have been challenges associated with her career in this demanding field, she doesn’t appear weighed down by them. In fact, she’s engrossed in her mission to make us all healthier and happier. And with her second book on shelves in Australia and New Zealand now, Dr Stamp seems unstoppable.
So what’s next for Dr Stamp? “We’ll just have to see where things take me,” she says, and gives me a warm hug and a wide smile.
For more information about a career in medicine see https://ama.com.au/careers/becoming-a-doctor
For more information on women’s heart health and heart attack symptoms try https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/your-heart/heart-attack-symptoms
*Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016). 3218.0 Regional Population Growth, Australia http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/[email protected]/DetailsPage/3218.02014-15?OpenDocument. Data retrieved March 2017.