Getting to Know: Ana Tobón
Where are you now?I live and practice surgery in Medellín, Colombia. I work as the coordinator/head of departments of maxillofacial surgery of four hospitals/clinics in the state of Antioquia: North Clinical Foundation in Bello, Saint Rafael Hospital Itagui, Panamericana Clinics in Apartado and Saint John of God in La Ceja. I am also a professor assigned to postgraduates in oral and maxillofacial surgery at CES University in Medellín.
What do these roles mean to you?For me, working as a professor and chief/coordinator of the oral and maxillofacial departments at four hospitals has been such a challenge. It demands so much preparation to, as a woman, be perceived as competent in the field. I am responsible for shaping not only good surgeons but good people who have compassion for people who are suffering. I have the responsibility of learning more every day so that I can inspire my peers and students.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.I graduated as a dentist in 2001 from CES University in Medellín; during the last year of my dental studies, I was selected for exchange program in Gothenburg, Sweden. Subsequently, in 2007, I was a graduate pioneer as the first female maxillofacial surgeon at the University of CES which for the previous ten years had graduated only males! Since then, many other women have successfully completed their postgraduate studies at the university. I am currently finishing my master’s thesis—focusing on the issue of face transplants, which currently are not permitted in Colombia—in bioethics.
What inspired you to become a surgeon?I always wanted to do something that would help people and, as I was growing up, I found that I had good manual dexterity. When I was studying dentistry, I met two surgeon professors who inspired me to go in the direction of surgery, and I was fortunate to meet several surgeon professors who allowed me to accompany them in their work. It was there that I discovered that I wanted to do something bigger: Operate on faces! I fell in love with CMF from the beginning, and I still feel that passion today!
Why craniomaxillofacial surgery as your specialty?As a CMF surgeon, I can make a real difference in patients’ lives: help them talk and eat and—most importantly—have an identity: a face that allows them to live in society and develop as a people. For me, this is a real privilege. People can hide a disfigured arm, a leg or a scar on the abdomen, but the the face is our presentation card to others and even ourselves. It allows our children to recognize us out of thousands other faces. No face is exactly like another and that makes our specialty unique.
What is it like to be a woman in such a male dominated medical specialty?It is a real challenge but at the same time an exceptional opportunity to be better every day. As the writer Mary Beard says, "It is not easy to fit women into a structure that, at the outset, is coded as masculine: What you have to do is change the structure." And structure is changing in Latin America! We have better opportunities to access formal and non-formal education and I think this has made the difference! We are breaking the vicious circle of women and poverty in our countries.
As the first woman to begin the postgraduate maxillofacial surgery studies at my university, I can say that in general I never experienced any type of gender-based rejection or difference in the treatment by my colleagues. However, in general there is a prevailing false belief that we are the "weak gender”: that we do not have the strength for surgical work! This demands that women put forth additional effort to dispel a fiction about our abilities. I believe we have done very well: today, women are leaders or chiefs in our areas of expertise. But there is still work to do to change the structures that are coded as generally masculine so that we can all—
male and female—get on with our shared mission of improving patient care.
"For me AOCMF is an additional family that gave me life! The foundation opened the doors to a world without limits! It has helped me to improve my practice every day, it has taught me to be a teacher of new generations and it gives me access to a family of like-minded surgeons for advance."
What would you say to women who may be considering CMF as a specialty?I would advise them not to be afraid to take on the challenge! It is wonderful to have the opportunity to be part of this chapter in history. Today more than ever, we can be surgeons, wives, mothers, daughters and scientists. The world is changing and it is time to achieve our dreams. It is a path with some sacrifices but very rewarding in the end! I think it's our "moment," so I definitely recommend becoming a maxillofacial surgeon.
What's the best professional advice that anyone ever gave to you?I remember being very disappointed that I had not achieved my surgical goal of not having any complications. A senior surgeon friend told me, "Only the surgeon who operates can make mistakes and go on to improve to become the best. Our errors teach us more than our successes." This advice changed my way of working and my own personal reflections. Operations are a great opportunity to become better person.
What books are on your nightstand?I really like history in general. Right now, I am reading "Idea de Nietzsche" (Nietzche’s Ideas) by Fernando Savater. I adore his irreverence.
Coffee or tea?Coca-Cola—although I live in Colombia where the best coffee is produced and I am an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
What do you do to relax?I love being able to sit down and read a good book in my library on a comfortable sofa with a good fire in the fireplace and a blanket. I also love yoga.
Tell us about the most important experience in your life as a surgeon.In 2011, I got an emergency call from the hospital at 4 am, asking me go to attend a woman who had suffered a terrible accident. When I arrived, I found a 25-year-old woman who, because of an accident after a party, had lost all of her face—and when I say “all,” I mean everything! I entered the operating room early on a Saturday morning and finished after approximately 17 hours. As much as possible, I tried to suture and shape what remained of the patient’s face, always thinking about future interventions that could help this patient. I explained this to my patient’s family who were anxiously waiting with her little daughters. The patient spent almost two months recovering in the hospital and, to this day, she comes to visit me every year with her daughters and gives me a big hug. The funny thing is that she never wanted any other procedure to "improve" her disfigurement as dictated by the standards and as I expected from the first day. For her, surviving that accident and being able to walk, talk and eat with her little ones meant everything.
For me this was an important lesson: Not all patients want to reach the final stage proposed by the books or the academy. Some want only to be able to return to live with their families; that’s their greatest reward. I learned from this woman that my patient's needs come first. Today she is a great friend of mine. I carry her in my heart.
Do you have a mantra or favorite saying?
“Love your neighbor as yourself” commands my life.
In a few words, what does AOCMF mean to you?
For me AOCMF is an additional family that gave me life! I joined as a member in 2005 during my residency and to this day AOCMF is part of my story. The foundation opened the doors to a world without limits! It has helped me to improve my practice every day, it has taught me to be a teacher of new generations and it gives me access to a family of like-minded surgeons for advance. AOCMF also teaches me to work in a team. It continues to help me grow as a surgeon.
What intrigued you about being part of the AOCMF Web Editorial Group (WEG)?
First, the WEG is a great chance to think in a group about how to teach new generations of surgeons so that, together, we can transform surgery and change patients’ lives. It is also an opportunity for my ideas to be heard by others who can make change as well as a way to represent both Latin American and women in roles where we can change things for ourselves. I am very fortunate for—and committed to—this chance to work alongside other world-leading experts with the same concerns about improving the transmission of surgical knowledge.
Dr Ana Catalina Tobón Trujillo lives, practices, and teaches surgery Medellín, Colombia. She graduated as a dentist from CES University in Medellín, in 2001, having earned academic honors during her undergraduate studies. In 2001, during her last year of dentist training, Ana was part of an exchange program in Gothenburg, Sweden, marking her entry into the world of implantology, an area that was just beginning in Colombia.
She graduated as a maxillofacial surgeon from CES University in 2007 and in 2001 earned her master’s degree in dental implants through a Sparza educational project and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. In 2012, she had an AOCMF Fellowship in the Hospital del Trabajador in Santiago, Chile. Currently, she is in the second year of master's studies in bioethics and will soon defend her thesis on facial transplants.