Esteemed surgeon Ernestine Hambrick, MD, FACS, FASCRS, the first woman board certified in colon and rectal surgery, is the recipient of the 2022 American College of Surgeons (ACS) Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Inspiring Women in Surgery Award. ACS President Julie A. Freischlag, MD, FACS, presented the award, which recognizes a surgeon’s significant contributions to the advancement of women in the field of surgery, to Dr. Hambrick earlier this evening during the Convocation ceremony preceding the opening of the ACS Clinical Congress 2022. Among her many achievements, Dr. Hambrick pioneered education and advocacy programs that raised public awareness of colorectal cancer and helped expand access to preventive screenings. She is the first colorectal surgeon to be honored with this prestigious award.
Born in the small town of Griffin, Georgia in 1941, Dr. Hambrick spent much of her youth running around the backyard of her family’s home, a modest four-room house with no indoor bathroom. As a young child, she fell and cut her eyelid, requiring stitches to heal the wound. It was that brief encounter with a family physician that left an indelible impression on her.
“On the car ride home, I apparently said to my mother and father: ‘He was a nice man. I’m going to be a doctor, too’,” she said.
Despite her resolute words at a young age, she faced long odds. When she was 6 years old, her father, who worked in the town’s cotton mill, passed away. Left to raise two young children alone, her mother moved the family to Tennessee and then to Maryland, where she pursued a nursing degree.
In high school, Dr. Hambrick poured over medical journals that illustrated operations, sparking a lifelong interest in the way surgery can heal patients. She studied pre-medical courses at the University of Maryland, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in 1963, and entered medical school at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. Though about 20 percent of her classmates were women— far above the national average at that time—few women pursued careers in surgery. When Dr. Hambrick told a school counselor about her plans to become a surgeon, he brushed her ambition aside: “You need to change your goals. Women aren’t made to be surgeons.” Determined to follow her passion, Dr. Hambrick would not be dissuaded.
A memorable moment during her obstetrics/gynecology rotation in medical school helped solidify her passion for the field of surgery. A patient on the floor developed a massive, life-threatening hemorrhage in her upper gastrointestinal tract. She witnessed general surgery resident Olga Jonasson, MD, FACS, respond to the emergency and perform a life-saving operation. “I distinctly remember watching Dr. Jonasson and saying to myself, “If she can do it, I can do it,'” Dr. Hambrick recalled.
After graduating from medical school, Dr. Hambrick was accepted into the general surgery internship and residency training program at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, becoming its first woman surgical resident in 25 years. At Cook County Hospital, Durand Smith, MD, and Herand Abcarian, MD, FACS, FASCRS, became her close mentors, nurturing her interest in colorectal surgery. She completed residency training in general surgery in 1972 and a year later, became the first woman board certified in colon and rectal surgery by the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery.
After completing her training, she joined the medical staff at Cook County Hospital and later established a private practice at Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center, serving city residents who no longer had to travel out of state to receive colonoscopies. Colleagues remember her ability to perform complex surgical procedures with precision, along with the extraordinary amount of time she dedicated to patient care.
“She was extremely caring. When she went into the room and came out, the patient and the family were sure that she could take care of the problem,” remembered Dr. Abcarian, her longtime mentor and colleague. “She would put the plan into play about what she was going to do, and the family would say, ‘She is not only good, but she took time to talk to us.’ This communication between the surgeon, patient, and the family was one area where Dr. Hambrick excelled.”
Early in her career, Dr. Hambrick and colleagues noted that polyp removal by colonoscopy could prevent colorectal cancer, but routine screenings with colonoscopy were not yet commonplace. In 1992, the harsh reality of colorectal cancer’s lethality struck a more personal note: her only brother succumbed to the disease at age 55. Motivated to increase public awareness of colorectal cancer and screening procedures, she established the STOP Colon/Rectal Cancer Foundation in 1998. The foundation produced impactful national and international campaigns, including a Telly-award-winning video encouraging screenings among Chicago police officers.
“It became clear to me that nobody needed to lose a brother like that. Nobody needed to lose a father or mother,” Dr. Hambrick recalled. “We knew how to prevent colon cancer. But that knowledge was new knowledge, and it needed to be disseminated not only through the medical profession, but also in the public domain.”
Dr. Hambrick’s resolve and vast clinical knowledge also influenced legislation on Capitol Hill: she consistently raised awareness of colorectal cancer and its prevention in guest editorials, media interviews, and personal presentations. On a notable appearance with the Today Show, she sat down with Katie Couric to stress the importance of receiving early screenings, noting that finding colon polyps and removing them during colonoscopies would prevent cancer as well as find early, treatable colorectal cancers. Her tireless advocacy finally paid off. In 2000, President Clinton declared March National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month; a year later, Medicare’s reimbursement policy was expanded to cover screening colonoscopies.
Dr. Hambrick notes that she did not explicitly set out to be a mentor to other women; but she led by example, serving as a role model to other women surgeons both directly and indirectly. She attended women-only luncheons at the annual meetings of the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (ASCRS) and served as the society’s first woman vice president. Though the first gathering only included herself and lead organizer Ann C. Lowry, MD, FACS, FASCRS, it has since grown to pack ballrooms with more than 200 people, many of whom now hold leadership positions in the ASCRS, ACS, and their respective surgical communities. Far from the days when Dr. Hambrick was the sole woman surgeon in the operating room, now more than 40 percent of colon and rectal surgeons are women.
“At one point, colorectal surgery, along with perhaps orthopedics and cardiothoracic surgery, was the least inviting surgical discipline to women surgeons. That situation has completely turned around,” said William Carmen Cirocco, MD, FACS, FASCRS, Secretary/Treasurer of the ACS Arizona Chapter. “As Charles Barkley famously noted, you don’t always have a choice whether you become a role model or not. Dr. Hambrick was a role model from a distance and influenced so many.”
Retired since 2017, Dr. Hambrick served the last 10 years of her career as a hospice physician, providing care to patients and families in their greatest time of need. She currently resides in Stanley, VA, close to her childhood friends.
Her collaborative spirit, relentless advocacy, and consistent elevation of women’s voices exemplify the mission of the Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Inspiring Women in Surgery Award.