Working as a hematological oncologist is not much different from any other job for Dr. Srividya Maharaj.
The hours are longer, there are more responsibilities and she has a lot more sleepless nights. Work sometimes wakes her up in the middle of the night, worried that she has forgotten to do something.
To characterize the bond she builds with her patients as fulfilling is an understatement, Maharaj said, because cancer can be the most terrifying diagnosis someone can receive.
“So to be able to be trusted to walk with the patient on this journey is a privilege,” she said.
Maharaj became the first female medical oncologist at the John B. Amos Cancer Center since Columbus Regional Health merged with Piedmont Healthcare when she started working at the hospital last August.
Prior to the merger, Dr. Wendy Mahone-Johnson, medical oncologist, and Dr. Vetta Barnes Higgs, hematological oncologist, worked at Columbus Regional Health.
Because breast cancer is one of the most common types of malignant tumors and an area of interest for her, Maharaj was thrilled to hear that she would be an option for local women.
“A lot of women, especially some older women, would be more comfortable with an oncologist,” she said. “They’ll be able to discuss things they wouldn’t otherwise do with my male counterparts.”
The ups and downs of being an oncologist
Maharaj’s working days start around 5:30 a.m., when she takes her dogs out to play fetch or tug of war. The 4-year-old shiba inu and 9-month-old Lab Shepherd mix rescues are a big part of helping ease the stress of his job, Maharaj said, as well as his faith.
“I don’t think I can do my job without faith,” she said. “I think that carries me through this process all the time.”
After playing with her puppies, she arrives at work around 7 a.m. and sees her patients until early afternoon, before doing paperwork and heading to the hospital for a round of patient visits. His working day usually ends around 5:30-6 p.m.
Seeing his patients through their treatment and helping them reach their next birthday is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, Maharaj said.
“I think that’s a big deal for me,” she said. “It gives me a joy that I cannot otherwise describe.”
But along with the ups, there are also the downs. The worst part of her job is the feeling she gets when she looks at a computed tomography (CT) scan and sees that the patient’s disease has progressed.
“I have to tell them about it,” she said. “And what are we going to do next?” I think this is the hardest part of my day.
When this happens, Maharaj focuses on finding ways to improve the quality of life for these patients, even if it means hospice.
Another challenge of being a woman in medicine is the subconscious bias Maharaj faces in doing her job. She had several instances where she walked into a room with her white coat on and people didn’t recognize her as a doctor.
“A nurse with the badge saying RN would be called a doctor,” Maharaj said. “And me, standing next to the nurse, would be called a nurse.”
Education about feminism and equality has made progress, she says, but it’s not quite where it should be yet. Maharaj hopes it will be better. About 34% of oncologists are women, according to a 2020 report published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology Journal.
An arduous process
The journey to becoming a doctor is an arduous process, Maharaj said, and can take more than 15 years, depending on the specialty chosen. Choosing to go into medicine is not something people should take lightly, she said.
“We have to recognize that as women it takes a lot of our best years where we would spend time saving money to buy a house, buy a car, find your partner or have kids,” he said. she declared.
When she was in school, Maharaj focused on the next steps to reach her end goal rather than the finish line. Becoming too focused on the ultimate goal could have taken away her drive, motivation and momentum, she said.
Maharaj’s husband, Dr. Dhruv Chaudhary, has been her rock throughout her career, she said. The couple met on the first day of their residency at the University of Louisville, Maharaj said, and since then he has supported her as a “cheerleader and most outspoken supporter”.
Maharaj and Chaudhary moved to Columbus because they wanted to get away from the rainy weather of Pittsburgh and spend more time in the sun down south.
“I still can’t get over the weather,” Maharaj said. “The people here are wonderful. I love my work. So, I couldn’t really ask for more.
She hopes to continue to grow her practice in Columbus, Maharaj said, and plans to consider expanding Georgia screenings for breast cancer. Ensuring underserved communities in Georgia have access to breast cancer screenings is one of her areas of focus, she said.
Maharaj also looks forward to more women being represented in medicine.
“It is very important that women have the same opportunities as men without the discrimination that women routinely face,” she said.
This story was originally published April 1, 2022 6:50 a.m.