By Matt Skoufalos
Her 20-year surgical career has brought Dr. Samantha Pillay of Adelaide, Australia no shortage of milestones. The first woman in the state of South Australia to train in urology, Pillay further blazed her own trail by specializing in female urology, with a focus on women’s health in incontinence surgery. She built her practice, called Continence Matters, as a first-of-its-kind center of excellence in the subspecialties of female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery.
“It was unusual for urologists to subspecialize at that time,” Pillay recollects. “What it meant is there was no script to follow, so I had to forge my own way. I had my own vision and my own ideas to create something. That meant I could do what I thought would serve the purpose best.”
The anchor to her career, Pillay said, is a strong sense of belief in herself, her worth and her ability to achieve the dreams she’d envisioned; she believes that lacking that belief “is the fundamental hurdle to success.”
“For people to be able to access and make change in their life, they’ve got to believe in themselves,” Pillay said. “How strongly adults with healthy habits believe that they can actually succeed is what allows them to put in the work, overcome the obstacles and setbacks, and reach that long-term goal.”
“There’s a lot I can do for someone’s health as a surgeon but it pales into insignificance compared to what they can do for themselves,” she said.
Pillay needed to look no further than her own life for the example of resiliency that has fueled her success. Growing up in a country where less than 13 percent of all surgeons are female, she had few role models to observe in her chosen career path. More than that, however, Pillay was born with congenital hip dysplasia and struggled with movement throughout her youth.
“I failed to walk, I started school in a wheelchair, and I really struggled with stairs up until I was 18,” Pillay said. “I had significant mobility issues that continued to deteriorate, especially after I had one son; in my 40s, my mobility reduced dramatically to the point that I struggled to shower and get dressed. It was almost to the point where I was going to have to give up work.”
Pillay had even been discouraged from entering a surgical career given the hours of standing that it would require. Urology became a viable prospect because some procedures could be completed while sitting. It wasn’t until she underwent a hip replacement some five years ago that Pillay gained the restriction-free movement that many of her peers in her field have enjoyed since childhood.
Despite these obstacles, Pillay rose to chair the Female Urology Special Advisory Group for the Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand from February 2007 to June 2013, and was President of the South Australian branch of the Continence Foundation of Australia from February 2011 to November 2014. The momentum that had carried her through schooling and into practice so successfully also sustained her as a single mother and entrepreneur.
As Pillay’s professional career rounded into form, her awareness of the cultural limitations of gender bias and stereotyping that had limited her own opportunities growing up never receded far from her mind. But it wasn’t until she found herself home from work during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that Pillay thought to address those underlying presumptions as an author.
“I’m a single mum, I don’t drink, and like a lot of surgeons, I’m a bit obsessive,” she said. “My thing through COVID has been having a project that I can do alone at home. It’s really important when we have such demanding careers to have some way of escaping that. I like to be productive; writing’s been a blessing in disguise as far as having something else to do.”
Pillay’s first foray into authordom came with “The No-Recipe Cookbook,” an attempt to impart her medical knowledge about the interrelationships among chronic disease, obesity, and mental and financial health into a holistic time- and resource-management cookbook. Her efforts to meal-plan and shop once every two to three weeks helped Pillay half her spending on food, reduce waste and save time. She wrote the book prosaically, with no recipes, and no pictures. “Then I was hooked,” Pillay said.
The exercise enabled her to “switch off work” with a hobby that she could pick up on her own schedule, and the positive feedback it generated inspired Pillay to create a second series of books for children. “When I’m a Surgeon” describes the conversations that a young girl might have with herself or her family as she plots a career in medicine. It’s depicted through illustrations that can help a child see what that path might be like, and strengthen her vision (and maybe her resolve) for that future. “When I’m an Entrepreneur” is meant to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs by highlighting the qualities required for success. There are companion coloring and activity books for each, and “When I’m an Astronaut” is due for release this year.
“When it comes to careers for women, career gender stereotypes start to form in early childhood,” Pillay said. “Career stereotypes really influence how people see themselves. It’s not about every child being a surgeon, it’s about every child believing that if they wanted to, they could be a surgeon, even for a moment. Or, that pretending that they were an entrepreneur for a short period of time, instills that self-belief.”
“I can be an author; I can self-publish,” she said. “I didn’t have that self-belief 30 or 40 years ago, but the next generation can because we are slowly lifting all these stereotypes, cultural behaviors and conditioning that acts to reduce people’s self-belief. By lifting these, the next generation will be capable of doing so much more.”
While Pillay acknowledges she didn’t have that same degree of self-belief that her characters (and readers) may enjoy, embracing her hobby has helped her self-publish five titles in a single year. The books are dedicated “dream big, aim high,” which, to her thinking, she’s done. They’ve also helped a surgeon unpack other parts of her brain and find creative applications for her medical career as well.
“This little hobby has benefited my surgical career in many different ways,” Pillay said. “Just the simple things, like challenging yourself outside of your comfort zone, is a good way of exercising your brain. When you’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years, it’s very different putting yourself into an area that you know nothing about. That learning curve has been very good exercise for my brain and an opportunity to do something creative, which surgery doesn’t really have.”