March 16, 2016

Walter values mentorship, diversity in her medical career

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RS14678 Lauren Walter scr“I don’t have any great romantic story to tell you why I wanted to be a doctor,” Lauren Walter, M.D., said with a smile. Her calm, cadenced speech offers no clue to the reality that not only is Walter a physician in the Emergency Department, she simultaneously heads two independent nonprofit advocacy groups and acts as a mentor to residents. “Ever since childhood, when you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wanted to be a doctor.”

She explains that as a child with asthma, she saw her local doctor more than most children her age. The way that the doctor always made her feel better, as well as the respect her doctor had in the community, made a lasting impression.

Walter, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine, is the chapter president of the newly re-established American Medical Women’s Association group at the UAB School of Medicine, and also head the Women in Emergency Medicine Group, which is dedicated to assisting women in that field with both their professional and personal development. She also serves as a mentor for two female residents.

Although she says she never felt limited in her options due to her gender, she said she’s aware that women face career obstacles due to the lingering effects of discrimination. The oldest of three children, Walter said she was always told, “You can do anything you want,” and took those word to heart. She was drawn to emergency medicine because of the variety it offers, and continues to relish the professional challenges.

“You see everybody from age 0 to 99,” she said. “You see everything. And you see folks oftentimes when they’re in crisis, which really gives you the opportunity to help someone. For me, that’s what medicine has always been about – being able to deliver care acutely to anyone.”

It was when Walter was completing her residency that she found herself drawn to the issues surrounding women in medicine, inspired by her own lack of a mentor. The paucity of women physicians to serve as mentors gave her a sense of isolation, and in the spirit of research, she began seeking out solutions. She said she “stumbled across” AMWA and women’s advocacy, though she doesn’t see equality as a women’s issue.

“It’s not just about women,” she said. “It’s about all of us. Promoting diversity, promoting women, is universally good for everyone. I’m hoping that by re-establishing AMWA, we can pull in doctors who can offer guidance and advice and mentorship, whether we’re just starting out as medical students or mid-career. We all want to know: how do I balance everything? How do I go up for promotion? How do I pursue this research?”

Walter sees work-life balance as a critical issue facing many women physicians, and as the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7, it’s something she copes with on a practical level. She advises women to seek out mentors, both male and female, even though the process can be intimidating, as mentors can provide critical guidance. It’s guidance she attempts to provide not only for the women in her Emergency Medicine group, but also to the medical students who form the AMWA student chapter at School of Medicine. Her passion for her mentoring work is obvious. “I love the clinical work,” she said, “but for me the academics and working with medical students, is what keeps it exciting and dynamic.”

When asked what advice she would give women following in her footsteps, Walter is pragmatic. “Realize it’s OK to not be perfect in everything,” she said. “I think women in particular get discouraged when they don’t do everything to absolute perfection. It’s OK to ask for help – that’s not failure.”