Dr. Ashley Marek grew up believing she could do anything, until she went to college. She started as a journalism major, but was inspired to become a surgeon after interviewing 2 surgeons for an article she was writing during her journalism internship. During the interview, one of the surgeons told her that she had a really good understanding of their field.
After that encounter, she thought she wanted to change majors and study biology so she could switch to pre-med. When she told friends about her plans, they replied: “You have to be smart to be a surgeon.”
In addition to her friend’s doubt in her abilities, some professors in her biology program also discouraged her from going to medical school. Here she was, a journalism major that just showed up to take Biology classes. She had no other science background, so some teachers didn’t take her seriously and told her that she wouldn’t make it into medical school.
Although these external messages were beginning to build her self-doubt, it didn’t stop her. She graduated with a biology degree got into medical school just fine.
While in medical school, she started to develop her goals for her life’s work, which is to serve the underserved.
It was a childhood dream of hers to go to Peru to see Machu Picchu. In college, she had the opportunity to go to Peru and volunteer. There, she worked with a nurse doing wound care and home visits for patients, worked as an interpreter for a visiting dentist, delivered mattresses, and helped build homes for people out of what was basically thatch. She was struck by the degree of poverty that they lived in and remembers visiting a lady who was a paraplegic who had a huge wound on her buttocks, and flies were buzzing all over her. There was another elderly man who would lay on his mattress in this dark, tarp-covered room in an alley way. They took him food. It smelled very bad in there and she had to hold her breath, but he was always so excited to see her. During her time there, she decided that while it seemed “exciting” to be a doctor in a 3rd-world country, she had a lot of work to do back at home.
During medical school, she went back to Peru two more times. Once was on a clinical rotation that she and one of her professors organized for other medical students so that they could get education in healthcare disparities on the global scale.
In the last 2 years of medical school, students do clinical rotations. During rotations, students shadow physicians and residents at teaching hospitals, have access to patients, and gain valuable hands-on experience. They shadow physicians in a variety of disciplines so they are able to make an educated decision about the specialty they want to join.
Ashley did surgery right away and really loved it. Surgeons can fix anything! But that self doubt reared it’s ugly head and she talked herself out of it. She spent the rest of her time trying out different specialties, but always came back to surgery.
She ultimately decided to be a surgeon and began her interviews for residency. Because she was from the Midwest, she intentionally focused on east coast interviews only. Until the one of the Deans of the Medical School whom she admired greatly, (University of North Dakota) asked her to consider HCMC (Hennepin County Medical Center) in Minneapolis. She was so uninterested, she almost blew off the interview to watch a facelift on her plastic surgery rotation, which she still hasn’t seen to this day!
After meeting the people and learning about the culture and the vision of the hospital, HCMC became her first choice. She found a culture that aligned with her personal values, which is to serve the underserved.
At HCMC, she works as a General Surgeon, which means that she does a little bit of everything. She can operate on hernias, gall bladders, colons, cancer, abcessed breast and the thyroid. Her practice is urgent and emergency patients and she’s the only woman in her practice group of 13. She also does surgical critical care in the ICU, which means that she takes care of patients in the ICU after they’ve had surgery.
As it relates to style, Dr. Ashley Marek always dresses professional if she is going to see patients in clinic, attend a conference or give a speech. All the men in her practice group wear suits, everyday, even if they are coming to the hospital to change into scrubs right away.
She admires people who are well-dressed and understands that it impacts how people perceive you. She feels like wearing scrubs to meet with patients gives off the impression that she doesn’t care, so she dresses professionally for all of her patient meetings. It inspires confidence and also shows how much she cares.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest? Oh my God, so many people and I have to pick one? John Oliver & Hillary Clinton.
Would you like to be famous?
I used to think so, but not any more. I don’t like being in the public eye.
Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say?
I used to be afraid to call people on the phone. Because I was a Journalism major, I had to get over that really fast.
What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
I love to travel. I imagine being somewhere amazing for the first time, like Machu Picchu. I’m going to Africa in April.
When did you last sing to yourself?
I sing to my dog all the time. Yesterday, I think it was the theme song to Growing Pains. I sing to myself too, but more commonly to my dog.
If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
Has to be the mind.
Do you have a secret hunch about how you’ll die?
Yes, a heart attack. Heart disease is the number one killer of women and I don’t have the healthiest lifestyle. I have a high stress job.
Say more about that.
There’s the acute stress of the job, when someone has been shot, you get that call and have to try to stop the bleeding. Then the other stressful part of the job is when you’re trying to figure out whether or not your patient needs surgery. You worry about whether you made the right choice.
There is a quote from a book by Abraham Vergese, “When the abdomen is open, you control it. When it’s closed, it controls you.” This is the perfect metaphor for what it is like to be a surgeon. When I have the abdomen open, I can see what’s happening and I’m in control. But once we sew it up, I can no longer see what’s going on to know if a patient who doesn’t look good is bleeding or has an infection or other perforation. You lose a lot of sleep and that can be stressful.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
I’m fortunate to have my job and all the opportunities I’ve had to be where I am. I have a good family and got to go to good schools. Statistically, I shouldn’t be a doctor. My mom and dad were poor and didn’t go to high school. And here I am a medical school graduate.
If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
My mom didn’t push me to do things that I didn’t want to do. She was always encouraging, but if I didn’t want to do something, like a piano recital, she didn’t force me.
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
To play the piano.