Powerhouse Physicians

Women in Medicine Delivering Extraordinary Care at Orange Park Medical Center

By Cheryl Lock



That was the answer every one of the nine physicians—all of whom are on staff at Orange Park Medical Center — gave while being interviewed when the question was, “What do you love about your job?”

It’s a hard question to answer, a handful of them said, but at the end every single one settled on … everything. “Honestly, I just love every bit of it,” said Arun Rao, M.D., a bariatric surgeon with Advanced Surgery Group. “I love taking care of patients, and I feel so privileged that they come to me and ask me to take their health in my hands.”

Of course love for the field of medicine isn’t the only thing binding these physicians together. They also are all women, working overtime in a field that has, in the past, been dominated by men—and they’re privileged to bring their expertise to the community through the work they do at Orange Park Medical Center. “Working at Orange Park has been a great experience because it has a smaller community feel, yet we are very well equipped at providing advanced medical care,” said Julie Barré, M.D., a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at First Coast Orthopedics, who is part of the dynamic team of orthopedic surgeons at Orange Park Medical Center, all of whom are well-versed in high-level, complicated cases.

For some of these doctors, working at Orange Park feels like home … because it is home. “I grew up in the Orange Park Area, and I know how much the medical center itself helps the entire community,” said Jade Pizarro, M.D., OB/GYN at UF Generation to Generation Obstetrics and Gynecology. “I get to see this firsthand with the volunteering I do in the community at the free clinic, too.”

In addition to the camaraderie at Orange Park, these physicians are quick to point out how the hospital’s quality has really soared over the past few years. One such example is how Orange Park Medical Center achieved an impressive milestone in their overall quest for better patient care last year: their 1,000th robotic assisted da Vinci surgery. Orange Park is at the forefront of robotic surgeries in Northeast Florida, allowing them to perform minimally invasive surgeries for multiple procedures including cardiac, urological and gynecologic surgeries, among others.

Despite their different specialties, backgrounds and ages, one resounding message is clear from these physicians: Women doctors bring something unique to the table.

“When I went to college, most of my pre-med advisors told me I was taking a job away from a man,” said Linda Sylvester, M.D., F.A.C.P., a hematologist/oncologist with Icon Oncology. “I had always been interested in going into medicine, but I allowed myself to get discouraged. I didn’t have the determination to say I don’t care [what other people tell me], so I went into teaching instead.”

After years of working as a French and Spanish teacher, Dr. Sylvester had a life-changing realization. “In my role as a teacher I was encouraging my students to do whatever they wanted — so what was the matter with me? Shouldn’t I be taking that advice, as well? So I went back to school, took my pre-med courses, and here I am today.”

And that journey has led Dr. Sylvester to Orange Park Medical Center, where she serves as an integral member of a comprehensive team of cancer specialists. Dr. Sylvester, in particular, is an advocate and champion in the fight against breast cancer as the cofounder of the Pink Ribbon Symposium.

Dr. Sylvester and Dr. Rao are just two women in a growing group of female physicians in Clay County who not only love their jobs, but who are determined to change the conversation about health in their community — starting with helping patients realize what it means to take their health into their own hands.

“I see a lot of patients who have hysterectomies or C-sections, and they don’t understand why it’s happened to them,” said Dr. Pizarro. “That’s sad, to have had a major thing like that happen in your life and not understand why. I hope the cases of, ‘You need to have this surgery because I say so,’ are waning, and that women feel empowered to understand why procedures are being recommended to them, and to know what questions they have a right to be asking.”

The idea of taking control — both in and out of the examining room — runs deep with these women. In fact, Dr. Sylvester wasn’t the only one who decided to change careers later in life. “I started out as a physical therapist, and I worked for seven years with orthopedic patients,” said Dr. Barré. “But eventually I decided I wanted to go to medical school. I think it’s becoming easier for women to break into the medical field, but the numbers are still low for women in surgical specialties, and I’d love to see them go up.”

In many cases these physicians are one of the few women—if not the only woman—working in their offices. “I’m the only female in my practice,” said Luna Khadour, M.D., a family practice physician with Family Practice Associates of Orange Park. “I’ve found that patients want to specifically see me for certain things. I hear from them that sometimes it’s just easier to relate certain subjects to me as a female doctor, especially when it’s on a female-to-female level.”

While bonding with women is certainly a perk of Dr. Khadour’s job, it’s the inclusivity of the position that drew her to her specialty in the first place. “I’m in family practice because I can see patients of all different age groups—from pediatrics to geriatrics—both males and females,” she said.

Diversity within her specialty is also what drew Mary Ann Kenneson, M.D., an urologist with Bluewater Urology, to her field. “I love urology because I treat all people, and it’s a good combination of both surgery and medicine,” she said.

Of course in the case of Dr. Kenneson, it doesn’t hurt that she gets to put her surgical expertise to good use at OPMC working with the da Vinci surgical assisted laparoscopic robot, as well.

Nowadays, many of these female physicians are excited to see a shift in the number of women taking on medical roles. “When I first came [to my practice], there were very few female physicians, or even physician’s assistants,” Dr. Sylvester said. “And I have seen a dramatic change in the makeup of the Orange Park Medical Center medical staff where I would say now almost 50% of the physicians are women.”

Dr. Kenneson credits her own ability to connect so deeply with patients to her listening skills. “In general, I think women tend to be a little more compassionate, and that helps make us excellent physicians,” she said. “In fact, when men come and see me, I find that at first they’re nervous, and usually they’ve never seen a female urologist before. But when they leave, many end up saying they’ll never see anyone else.”

Listening skills aside, one other way that these women can relate to their female patients is when it comes to dealing with the stress of family life. “I understand what women are going through, because I have three kids myself, so it’s easy for me to understand the parents who come to see me, especially with my military families where maybe the father is deployed and the mom has to deal with everything at home and at work,” said Hui Tang, M.D., a family practice physician with First Primary Care & Family Medicine. “A lot of times patients in general don’t think doctors have enough time for them. So I’m patient, and I try to spend as much time with them as I can. In family practice, I like to say we’re the bridge between different specialties. Everyone tells people to go see their family doctor, so in that sense we’re the managers of our patient’s entire field of care, and it’s a great responsibility.”

A great responsibility might be putting it lightly. Primary Care physicians at Orange Park Medical Center treat acute illness and disease, chronic conditions, geriatrics, give immunizations and perform minor surgeries, among other things. At Orange Park, Primary Care physicians definitely pull out all the stops when it comes to providing excellent patient care.

As far as dealing with family goes, for most of these women it’s a balancing act they deal with every day. “I’ve been lucky to have a nontraditional marriage—my husband stayed home with the kids for the first few years while I worked, and now he’s back working fulltime and I’m part-time,” said Andrea DeNeen, M.D., a cardiologist with First Coast Cardiovascular Institute. “For women it’s about balance, because we are starting to take on these nontraditional roles … or maybe it’s that we’re changing the definition of what traditional actually is.”

Make no mistake—there really isn’t anything traditional about Dr. DeNeen’s role as a cardiologist at Orange Park. Cardiac care at the center includes everything from open-heart surgery and interventional cardiology to minimally invasive procedures, diagnosing and stage lung cancer and robotic assisted surgery.

While these women all deserve to be proud of the hard work they put in, at the same time, they recognize that excellent community care is a team effort. “[Women physicians are] breaking down boundaries, but it really takes everyone to provide great care,” said Dr. DeNeen. “It takes a multitude of people and personalities, and I think ability wise, the genders are equal, and there’s a lot that women can bring to the table.”

Being a strong female physician is as much about giving thanks to those who have paved the way for the women of today as it is about the new female physicians bringing their own expertise to the field at Orange Park Medical Center. Perhaps Dr. Pizarro said it best when she said, “I think people are becoming more used to having female doctors. My grandmother never would have considered going to see a female doctor, because she thought doctors were supposed to be men. There were good female physicians before me who paved the way to allow me to change that conversation, and to allow me to get to where I am today.”


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