Sanford School of Medicine School of Medicine

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Elizabeth Zorn, M.D.

Elizabeth Zorn, M.D.

Becoming Doctor Natural Selection

By Pat Mack  

Elizabeth Zorn '91 M.D., had several personal reasons for becoming a doctor.

She survived cancer as a child. Her father's career as a physician provided inspiration. And she discovered a love of science during college.

She now serves as the first female president of the medical staff of Phoenix Children's Hospital even as she continues an active clinical practice in the hospital's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

"I love what I do," Zorn said. "I am very, very glad I took the path that I did."

Her experience as an oncology patient at the age of 12 influenced her decision to become a pediatrician. After diagnosis, Zorn's treatment required regular travel to Omaha from Tyndall, S.D. The facility was more sophisticated than anything in South Dakota at that time, but it was not a dedicated pediatric hospital.  

"I was a child who had this experience in an adult hospital," she said. "I clearly remember many of my diagnostic tests and interactions with health care professionals along the way. I call upon those experiences now, and it makes me really appreciate the care we can provide in a dedicated pediatric facility. I think that's one of the reasons why I ended up in pediatrics."

When she first went to college, she thought she would go on to law school, not medical school. However, with her first chemistry class she found sciences were her affinity. She considered using her love of science in a career as an attorney, perhaps working for the EPA. "But I realized lawyers are immersed in conflict," she said. "What I wanted to do was make a difference in a positive way. Becoming a doctor was a natural selection that I resisted for awhile."

She said her gender was never an issue during her medical school, residency and fellowship training. But she said she does feel professional women carry a heavier responsibility in raising children. "Those of us women who work full-time have a different set of expectations on us about how we balance everything, because when it comes right down to it, we're still the moms," she said.

A group of women in medicine meet regularly at Phoenix Children's Hospital. "We thought it would be good to discuss issues that come up particular to women," she said.

One of the physicians in the group recently retired. She recalled her experiences 40 years earlier when she and her husband were residents at the same hospital. Zorn said, "He was paid for his work, and she was not paid because she was his wife, and she was, I guess, expected to provide her services for free."

Zorn said the woman's experience was a good reminder. "I realize my path was forged by these women who put their heads down, worked hard, resisted when resistance was necessary but in the end, did what they had to do to become fabulous women and fabulous doctors." 

In fact, Zorn sees an advantage in being a female doctor. "Women by nature are caretakers and communicators. We listen, and we are patient. Those characteristics are so important in being an excellent physician."

Zorn has a strong passion for medical education. She and the Foley family created the Dr. R.J. and Phyllis Foley Endowed Scholarship to honor their parents and to help medical students afford school. She also teaches medical students and residents who flow through her critical care pediatric unit. "That's what medicine is about, teaching others to provide excellence in their care," Zorn said. "I enjoy teaching. I enjoy interacting with these energetic students. They challenge you. They keep you on your toes."

Her advice for medical students - male and female - is that medicine is a great profession that offers unlimited opportunities. "You can go anywhere in the world and share your knowledge, expertise and skills," Zorn said. "Medical school and residency training education is a long path that requires a lot of commitment, but at the end you gain the skills to do incredible things."