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Mary-Clare Miller
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Rowing and surgery ideal combination for Mary-Clare

Mary-Clare Miller (Medical Sciences 1993) is a consultant plastic and hand surgeon and was cox of the Cambridge team which won the 1996 Women’s Boat Race.

What were your first impressions of the College?

I just loved the environment. I really liked the 60s architecture; I liked that it was just slightly out of the main bit of Cambridge, and I found the gardens really impressive. But above all, I was so lucky that when I arrived I met some wonderful people, fellow students and teachers who really cared. I found it a very happy place to be.

Why did you choose to study Medicine?

I was always going to do medicine, ever since I was little. When I was around eight I remember being fascinated by children’s books on the human body. When I became older I realised that I liked working with and caring for people and that remains one of the best parts of my job. 

How did you balance coxing with your studies?

In terms of time I didn’t find the academic side of things much more of a commitment than I had been used to doing my A-Levels. So it was a matter of being super organised to fit in the 35-hour per week training commitment that is required to get into the University Blue Boat.

You specialise in plastic and hand surgery for the NHS. Why did you choose surgery and what does your work entail?

I was very drawn to surgery – the practical nature of it, its basis in anatomy, the decision making process and the speed with which you see outcomes. 

I found the anatomy course at Cambridge amazing as we were able to do so much dissection. As a qualified surgeon there is still so much to gain from dissection and I return to the dissection lab whenever possible.

I was introduced to plastic surgery when I did my clinical research in hand surgery and was inspired by the potential to restore form and function following injury or disease. In plastic surgery good outcomes depend upon attention to detail and precise tissue handling skills.

Two thirds of my practice is general plastic surgery, which is reconstructive surgery after cancer or injury. We operate ‘top to toe’ – by which I mean there isn’t an area of the body we don’t work on and that means we are frequently working with other specialities in multi-disciplinary teams. The other third of my work is hand surgery.

Hand surgery focuses on function and is a very broad specialty – my patients include children with congenital differences, to anyone with bone and tendon injuries. Restoring function is extremely rewarding. 

Do you feel that being a woman has had an impact upon your career?

When I went through my training I never felt any particular impediment or advantage of being a woman. I went part-time for part of my training after having my son, and that slow-down in my career at that point probably had more of an impact than anything else.

More women than men are now training to be doctors, even though senior management and consultant positions are more often held by men, especially in surgery. What do you think the implications of this will be for the NHS long term?

I think there is a time lag and it won’t be long before we see a great wave of brilliant women taking up consultant posts. During my career in the NHS the number of female consultants has increased substantially. However, I know from my personal experience that juggling surgery and parenting is something that all my contemporaries, men and women have found hard. Medical and surgical training is a competency based system which relies on gaining sufficient clinical exposure and there is no substitute for the hours this takes. I think we have to accept that training may take longer as a result. 

Who are your role models and why?

I worked with an eminent plastic surgeon, Professor Vivien Lees, who was President of the British Society for Surgery of the Hand, and had a really unique approach to her work and academia. I remember talking to her about being a woman in medicine and she pointed out that sometimes being a woman can be an advantage. She had a very positive approach to advancing her career and worked incredibly hard. She was a fantastic inspirational figure, but I wouldn’t say I would ever want to be like her in totality. I have never found anyone who I have thought ‘that is exactly how I want to do it’- it’s always been my own way. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

Worry less about things! You can afford to push yourself and take risks, but they are controlled risks. I would definitely encourage myself to be actively pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I once got told by one of my trainers that if you’re not feeling uncomfortable 75% of the time you’re not really pushing yourself and that was a really good rule of thumb.

Get on, do stuff, and reflect.

By Millie Papworth