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New at the top: Defying the naysayers to pursue a medical career in a field dominated by men

I always thought the doctor in our family would be one of my four brothers.

Not me.

But as I grew up, it became apparent that medicine was my calling.

I went to a tiny Catholic high school in the Midwest and graduated at the top of my class.

In college, I decided to study biomedical engineering, which was a new field at the time. I was one of the only women.

At the time, some people would tell me that women should not be engineers because we weren’t strong enough. But a host of others cheered me on, so I never let the naysayers talk me out of it.

I remember during my first year in college, there was an engineering design contest in which you had to use glue and a certain number of toothpicks to build a bridge that would withstand a certain amount of pressure before it collapsed. It was based on engineering principles of support and structures. You had a week to build it.

They announced the runners-up. When they called my name as the winner, the room was completely silent.

Eventually the audience applauded, but for me, that was a defining moment.

It gave me that much more confidence that women are smart enough to do this.

After studying biomedical engineering, you either pursued a doctorate in engineering and worked for a drug company or you went to medical school.

I chose medical school, and soon after that, I married my husband. Only 10 percent of the students were women.

A number of people were concerned about a married woman going to medical school and pursuing a career, but my husband and parents were very supportive.

I performed well in medical school and was named intern of the year. Part of it was understanding what I knew and what I didn’t know. After identifying my deficit, I would use my time outside the hospital to study.

After 15 years of establishing a reputation for being knowledgeable and getting things done, I progressed to the role of executive dean of operations.

Eventually, I began to see the direction that medicine was headed. I knew that MedStar Washington Hospital Center was going in that direction. It was putting together a system where one goes from being an outpatient to the hospital to rehab. I knew they were ahead of their time.

I came to MedStar and helped improve the quality and safety of the hospital. I helped build a program that saves lives by decreasing medical errors. I also helped recruit esteemed physicians.

Now I want to bring nursing, operations and physicians together to execute effectively.

I love my job and my profession. There’s no more rewarding field than affecting an individual’s health or comforting someone in pain.

I believe women and men alike need to follow their hearts and be positive about themselves.

I could’ve easily been deflected. But I figured out my aspiration and followed it doggedly.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Janis M. Orlowski Position: Chief operating officer and chief medical officer at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, a private, nonprofit research hospital. Career highlights: Chief medical officer and senior vice president of medical affairs, MedStar Washington Hospital Center; executive dean for operations, Rush Medical College; associate vice president of medical affairs, Rush University Medical Center. Age: 56 Education: BS, biomedical engineering, Marquette University; MD, Medical College of Wisconsin. Personal: Lives in Georgetown with husband William McNulty. They have one son, Connor McNulty.

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