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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

A surgeon who broke gender barriers remembers early indignities

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
Dra. María Flores Méndez was the first female plastic surgeon in southeast Mexico. In blue scrubs is Dr. Gilberto Medina Flores, who is one of two sons who followed in her footsteps. Photographed at Eme Red Hospitalaria Mérida by Laura Sánchez / Yucatán Magazine

Dra. María Flores Méndez was the first female plastic surgeon in southeastern Mexico and, in 2000, was the first woman president of a plastic surgery college. She remembers when a woman rarely was in charge in an operating room. She hasn’t forgotten the abuse and disrespect during her residencies, either. With the help of her son, Dr. Gilberto Medina Flores, who, like his brother Eduardo followed closely in her professional footsteps, we asked her to reflect on those times and tell us about her life and career today as a plastic surgeon in Mérida.

Please tell us about the beginning years of your practice. 

Since I was in residency, we were 19 residents: 18 men and me in general surgery. They always wanted to expose me as not good enough. This prompted me to demonstrate that not only I could do it, but I could be better than them. The same happened during my plastic surgery residency: There were seven men and me, and they always wanted me to do everything they didn’t want to. Once, we had a symposium in another city, and someone had to stay at the hospital to take care of the patients. One guy told me that since I was a woman, since I was married, and since I had a small child, it was me who had to stay behind. I replied that I was not there in residency because I was a woman, because I was married, or because I had a kid, I was there because I had gone through the same selection process as everyone else, and we could just draw straws, and if fate decided me to stay, I’d do it. But I wouldn’t stay because I was the only woman who wanted to be a plastic surgeon, like everybody else. And I went to the symposium.

How long have you been in practice, and how long will you continue?

I have been a plastic surgeon for 34 years, and maybe I’ll keep working for three more years. I don’t mind if you publish my age — 67 years.

Are there benefits to being a woman in medicine? 

Once I had a patient who came to my office, and her husband didn’t want her to come here anymore because I was a woman. But the lady came back because she really didn’t like the way she was treated by two other male surgeons. She felt more confident with me.

Tell us about your volunteer work. 

I have been working with cleft lip and palate kids, with a group called Sharing Smiles, with help from Rotary Clubs here and in Winter Park, Florida, and with the support of Florida Hospital Orlando (now AdventHealth Orlando). We have been doing this for 23 years, and we have changed the lives of about 3,000 kids, performing several procedures on most of them, for free. I also work with the national association for clefts and craniofacial anomalies.

Has it gotten easier for female doctors in Yucatán?

I believe it is a bit easier today for women. However, I believe that many young female doctors still feel threatened or aggravated, but instead of feeling that way, they should channel that frustration to show the males that we can do it as well as, or even better, than male doctors.

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