Though Dr. Stephanie Montgomery has saved countless lives with her eleventh-hour interventions in the operating room, the trauma and critical care specialist at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center claims that her life as a surgeon is far less important than her life as a teacher.
“I think I derive as much pleasure from teaching people to be surgeons as from doing it,” she says, “because you have a much greater impact on the world if you teach someone to take care of people.”
She says her own teachers, who believed in her despite the fact that she came from a poor, uneducated family, had a huge impact on her life.
Born in Bristol, Tennessee, a small town located on that state’s border with Virginia, Dr. Montgomery was the first person in her family to go to college. Yet she knew by the age of four that she wanted to be a physician. “They [my family] didn’t know what to think of me,” she says.
She describes how as a child, she was constantly putting Band-Aids on family members and giving people shots with her plastic Fisher-Price syringe. “My whole life was getting ready to be a doctor,” she says.
The Golden Ticket
Dr. Montgomery encountered many obstacles along the way to obtaining her medical degree; in fact, she had to drop out of Virginia Tech when her divorced mother, who was helping her pay for college, lost her job. “There were times we didn’t even have food in the house – or electricity or running water,” she recalls. “But I always knew if I worked as hard as I knew I could, that I could raise myself out of it.”
Determined to complete her education, she took out loans, commuted to Old Dominion University on the east coast of Virginia to finish her undergraduate degree, and then applied to medical school. “It’s not really a sad story,” Dr. Montgomery says, “because my life has made me able to relate to everyone – from the person who cleans the floor all the way up to the CEO. I just worked to get where I am.”
The day she got into Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Dr. Montgomery says, she “dropped to the ground and cried.” In fact, it meant so much to her that she still has the acceptance letter. “This piece of paper,” she says, pulling the ink-stained document, dated October 17, 1994, from a worn blue folder stashed in her desk’s file drawer, “was like the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket.” Med school, she says, changed her life. And once she began her surgery rotation, during her third year of medical school, she knew she had found her calling.
“I think one of the reasons I was drawn to surgery is that I used to help my dad, and later, my mom, fix things. I knew how to use tools even when I was little,” she says. “I used to also always sew quilts with my mom and grandmother (it’s a southern thing), and that’s actually a lot like sewing intestines.”
Dr. Montgomery adds that she was never squeamish about seeing blood, as many of her family members were hunters and fishermen, and she would help to field dress the deer or gut the fish to get the day’s bounty ready for dinner.
She completed her residency at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. “I was lucky because as a resident at this world-known trauma center, I got to see amazing doctors literally drag people back from the jaws of death,” she recalls.
Dr. Montgomery remained at Shock Trauma for her fellowship training in surgical critical care, but before settling on that specialty, spent a year doing a research fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, since she also had an interest in surgical oncology.
“I immediately missed patients,” she said of her brief stint in research. “People are better than mice.”
Dr. Montgomery, who took care of many head injuries while at Shock Trauma, obtained additional board certification in neurocritical care while an attending at the Medical University of South Carolina, where she worked until joining the staff of Saint Francis in 2015. She learned about Saint Francis while she was in Connecticut, interviewing at Yale. “My friend who lived in the area and worked at Saint Francis said, ‘You should see my hospital.’ ” And she liked what she saw. “I was coming from a Level I trauma center,” she adds, “and I knew that coming here, I could have a say in growing the trauma program.”
In November, in fact, Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center was recognized by the American College of Surgeons as a Level I Trauma Center – one of just a few in the state. “We are very proud of the program that we are building,” says Dr. Montgomery.
About 2,500 trauma cases pass through the Saint Francis emergency room each year, and Dr. Montgomery and her partners – Dr. Gary Kaml, Dr. David Shapiro, Dr. Manuel Moutinho, Dr. Vijay Jayaraman, and Dr. Ronald Gross – handle all of them. They also take care of patients in the intensive and critical care units and perform general emergency surgery as well. “I have the greatest job ever,” says Dr. Montgomery. “Every day is different.”
She says that taking care of trauma patients is especially rewarding, as “some of the patients are within minutes of dying if you are not standing there.” She explains how trauma surgeons must take care of families as well as patients, and that they see people at their best time and at their worst possible time, depending on the patient outcome.
It’s extremely gratifying, she says, when patients bounce back. “You see a young person come into the trauma bay unresponsive, close to dying,” she describes. “And then to have the sheer exhilaration to see them walking into your office and thanking you – it makes you cry every time – it fills your soul.”
One of Dr. Montgomery’s trauma patients in South Carolina – a young mother who almost died giving birth – even named her second baby (carried by a surrogate) after the doctor who saved her life. “Sometimes I think that the world puts you on a path for a special reason,” says Dr. Montgomery. “The day that I saved Meghan, I felt so strongly that this was the reason that I became a doctor.”
Finding fulfillment through teaching
Dr. Montgomery, an associate professor of surgery, also derives fulfillment through teaching; the surgeon is always trailed by a team of medical students and residents. As director for the hospital’s surgery clerkship, Dr. Montgomery is in charge of the UConn and Quinnipiac medical students’ experience at Saint Francis. She also trains UConn surgical residents, as well as physician assistant and nursing students.
“I let them all come in with me and participate in whatever I’m doing,” she says. This means paying attention to them, remembering their names, giving them a role, and showing them that they are important too, she explains. “It matters – if people have positive role models and mentors, they are more likely to [continue in] the field they are in.”
When she’s not in the operating room or teaching, Dr. Montgomery loves to travel. A giant map of the world covers one wall of her office; pushpins mark each country that she has visited. Because she grew up in such a small place and never visited anywhere else as a child, “the minute I got my passport, I took off.”
Her other source of joy: with spending time with her family. “I have two little girls, 10 and 12, and all the stuff that makes me crazy about them,” she concedes, “is straight from me.”
One daughter wants to be a doctor. “She always wants to see photos of wounds, and she wants to hear about how many operations I did today,” Dr. Montgomery says. The other daughter wants to sing and be famous. The surgeon says she, too, wanted to be famous.
“I’m just waiting for that to happen,” she adds with a laugh.
Lori Miller Kase is a freelance writer living in Simsbury.
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