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Learning Valuable Insights from Patients with Dr. Starr Mautner

Board-certified surgeon, Dr. Starr Mautner shares the helpful lessons she's learned from her patients.

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Dr. Starr Mautner, ​breast surgical oncologist with Baptist Health’s Miami Cancer Institute, recognizes that healthcare workers don’t have all the answers which is why it has become so vital to open our eyes to patients’ knowledge. Every patient has a unique story and can provide medical professionals with a new outlook on how they practice.

Thank you so much for your time! I know you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what early experiences brought you to choosing a career in the medical profession?

I was interested in the sciences from a young age and had a few opportunities during middle and high school to observe surgery at a local hospital, which piqued my interest. A family friend, who was a plastic surgeon in private practice, offered to let me scrub in to observe a surgery. After scrubbing into the operating room as a 16-year-old for my first surgery, I could not envision myself doing anything else.  

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you in your career as a doctor?

Early in my career, a 30-year-old woman came to see me with concerns of a mass she felt in her right breast. She had already undergone a mammogram and ultrasound of the area revealing a mass at the site, but was told the mass was likely benign given her young age. That didn’t sit right with her and after examining her and reviewing her imaging, it didn’t sit right with me either. She had a strong family history of breast cancer, so I recommended a biopsy for definitive diagnosis. The biopsy revealed an invasive cancer. 

While this patient credits me with saving her life, I credit her for reinforcing a valuable lesson that has since helped shape my career. Even though breast cancer is relatively rare in women under the age of 40, women should not be discredited because they are young, and patients need to be their own advocates. Unfortunately, I have since diagnosed and operated on dozens of women under the age of 40 with breast cancer. It has now become a research interest of mine.  

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting out on your career? What lesson did you learn from that?

As a fourth-year medical student on the Chief of Surgery’s service, I had prepped for a rapid-fire series of questions that could be asked in the operating room. From abdominal anatomy to the patient’s presenting history and lab values, anything was fair game. I thought I had done an adequate job preparing for my first day in the OR on rotation. However, what I did not anticipate was answering questions about different musical genres and artists. I will always remember being asked to name the artist singing “Unchained Melody” and not being able to answer “The Righteous Brothers.” The lesson I learned was as follows: As a surgeon, your knowledge of music will be judged along with your knowledge of anatomy, and it is always important to have good music playing in the operating room. 

To #DareToCare means to survive and thrive in today’s medical world. How do you take care of yourself? What’s the routine you must do to thrive every day?

Every day, I try to list at least three things that I am grateful for and not take anything for granted. I work in a field where I have to deliver life-altering news. No matter how bad a day I might be having, I know that life can change in an instant. 

I tell my patients that exercise is important for both physical and mental health and try to practice what I preach. I play tennis at least once a week and ride my Peloton. 
 
I prioritize time with my family and make sure to always have a sense of balance. I feel most fulfilled when I have a busy day in the OR, but I’m still able to make it home in time for dinner with my husband and kids. 

I write a series of letters to my God-daughter in my latest book. In that same vein, what are 5 things you would tell your younger self? 

– It’s okay to not be the “cool girl” in high school or college; it’s much better to be the “cool doctor.” 

– It is true that if you do what you love, it will never feel like work. 

– It is possible to be a surgeon and have a happy marriage and kids. I am a living example of this. 
 
– All of the hard work and training absolutely pays off. Training to be a surgeon is difficult. There are many sacrifices you must make and it may be difficult for others to understand your absence during this time. Now that I am on the other side, I can say it was 100% worth it.  

 -If you haven’t had a complication yet, you haven’t done enough cases.  As physicians, we are hard on ourselves when things don’t work out as planned. We always want our patients to do well, but everyone will face a complication. 

How can medical professionals reclaim heart-based healing amid pandemic, political, and other pressures?

One of the biggest obstacles I’ve experienced during the pandemic as a breast surgeon is connecting with patients on a personal level without ever seeing their face, shaking their hand, giving them a hug, and meeting their loved ones. It just doesn’t feel right not having that personal connection that is so vital, and which we all took for granted prior to the pandemic.  

To maintain a personal connection after examining my patients in person, I follow-up with a “FaceTime visit” so that we can actually see each other face to face. This allows patients to then have family members and friends present to ask questions and feel comfortable with the plan before their surgery. I think medical professionals can reclaim heart-based healing by always being empathetic and making sure to treat their patients as they would want to be treated. 

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your work as a healthcare professional? Can you explain?

I like to read books written by patients who have undergone treatment for cancer. It allows me to see the experience from their perspective and helps me to be a better physician. One of my young patients wrote a book called WARRIOR about being diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in her early 30s and how she managed treatment while at the peak of her career. The book was eye opening for me. As much as my patients learn from me, I find myself learning so much from them as well.  

Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence in the healthcare community. If you could inspire other doctors and nurses to bring change to affect the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Said another way, what difference do you see needs to be made for our collective future?

Promoting diversity in healthcare is extremely important. In a field that was traditionally male dominated, I did not have many female role models and mentors who were surgeons during medical school and residency. In fact, the only ones I really worked closely with were breast surgeons, which likely influenced my decision to go into the field of breast surgical oncology. By continuing to break stereotypes and remove barriers in healthcare, we will create a stronger and more inclusive health care community that better serves the needs of a diverse patient population.    

How can people connect with you?  

E-mail: [email protected] 
Instagram: @drstarrmautner 

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