Constance Haan, M.D.
From Humble Roots to Heights of Medicine:
Alum Becomes One of the World's Few Female Cardiothoracic Surgeons
By Pat Mack
It's not a care package from home that you'd expect.
Constance Haan '83 M.D., was training as a resident doctor in Boston when she opened an envelope mailed to her by her father.
Out tumbled a photo of the family farm near Lennox, South Dakota. To be more precise, it was a photo her father had snapped during a snow storm of the farm's outhouse.
It served as a stark reminder of her roots, where indoor plumbing at home and at the one-room schoolhouse she attended through grade six were not taken for granted. Her mom also helped make sure she didn't get too full of herself.
During a visit to Boston, her mom watched as Haan, a resident doctor, directed her team in cleaning up after an experiment in the animal research lab. "We were done mopping the floor, and my mom turned to me and said quietly, 'You missed a spot.' "
Haan added with a laugh: "My parents definitely helped me stay grounded."
Haan's meteoric rise to being one of the few female cardiothoracic surgeons in the world began from the humblest of roots. She grew up in a poor sharecropper farm family in South Dakota. At one point at her country schoolhouse, she was the only one in her grade. Now she's not only a surgeon, but she also is leader of the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville as well as an international consultant.
She chronicles her journey from the farm to the operating table in her book, Living On Purpose.
Haan wrote the book for two reasons. Although she did not see her story as being that dramatic, others kept telling her that her accomplishments were considerable. In addition to documenting her success story, the book also offers help for anyone trying to find purpose and fulfillment, including medical students.
Haan said she knew at an early age that her purpose was to be a doctor, most likely in cardiac surgery. "I realize that not everyone figures out that early that they want to go to medical school," Haan said. "But you need to look inside yourself and see what drives you. Those are important clues in figuring out what your strengths are and what you're supposed to do."
Her advice for people considering medical school? "Figure out what's right for you, not anyone else. Don't do it to please someone else. Do it because you can't live and can't breathe without doing it. Find the right driving factors, because it's going to be hard, and even when you are doing exactly what you should be doing, there will be times when you think, 'What the heck am I doing?' "
A clear sense of purpose can be critical, especially for women, in even applying to medical school. Haan recalled that an elderly friend was shocked that she planned to pursue medicine instead of music. Haan had an aptitude for music and by high school had become a very good piano player as well as a piano teacher for 12 students. But she knew it wasn't her career calling. "I didn't want to depend on my music for the rent to get paid," she said. "I wanted to enjoy music. It's not what I wanted to do as a profession."
Her piano training did pay off as a surgeon. "As a surgeon, you need hand-to-eye coordination," she said. "Developing that skill set fit very well with what I wanted to do in becoming a surgeon because I developed technical motor skills and it gave me something to enjoy as a hobby."
Haan said she stopped counting the naysayers along her journey. She was not to be deterred. Not even the brutal hours required when she was a resident - hours that are now restricted by law - could push her out of her chosen profession. But it was close. "One particular pivotal moment came when I was psychologically, emotionally and physically beaten down into the ground, and I was sitting in my car after driving home from the hospital at 11 p.m. on my day off. And I thought to myself, 'I don't have to go back tomorrow.' But I was unwilling to let people who thought I couldn't cut it be right. And I've succeeded in ways they haven't."
One reason she struggled at times is that she was afraid to ask for help. In part, her farm upbringing instilled in her the spirit of making it on your own. But she also didn't want to reinforce gender stereotypes. "I knew I had to prove things that others didn't," she said. "Part of being tough enough to survive was sucking it up and doing what you had to do and not show any sign of weakness or any sign of needing help."
She said she's overcome that now, adding that in health care today it's critical to work together in teams. She also believes part of the reason her path became rocky at times was because she rocked the boat. "I always push to improve things. Even when I was a resident, I was setting up stepdown units, inservicing the nurses or figuring out a way to not have to wake patients in the middle of the night to get labs done," she said. "I was always changing something or trying to improve things. It's just how I'm wired. I used to wish I could be content with the way things are, just fit in and do my job. But that's not how I do my job."
Striving for perfection is now literally part of her job. Haan serves as the chair of the Performance Improvement Committee at Shands Jacksonville Medical Center. She also works as an international consultant helping other countries create health care systems. And at her medical school, she is always looking for ways to improve the curriculum.
To help her continually improve the institutions where she works, Haan is committed to continuing education. She said that even though medical school lasts four years, there is not enough time to teach students everything they need to know. She said many physicians, after years of medical education, now complete M.B.A.s and law degrees.
Haan's office is filled with shelf after shelf of books on all of the topics she spent time learning after her specialty training. "Every student takes anatomy, pathology, etc. But that's a very finite part of what I do every day. Now, more than several decades ago, you need to know about systems thinking, outcomes management, patient safety, process improvement and organizational leadership," she said. "Because of the respect given to the profession, doctors are expected to do all of these things, but we're not trained to do them."
In addition to shelves of books, her office also has decorative flying pigs - gifts from an encouraging friend who knew about the naysayers who seemed to suggest women like Haan would become successful in surgery when pigs fly.
"I now display those in honor of all of the people who said I couldn't do it," Haan said. "Somehow I survived what I needed to do to get it done. You have to dig down deep because it's tough. But if you are doing it for the right reasons, keep it together and see it through. It's worth it on the other side."