Susan Luck Is a Rare Woman Pediatric Surgeon Who Can't Bear to Hurt Her Little Patients
In a 1975 issue of the Children's Voice, a hospital publication, a close associate wrote: "Dr. Luck has a stubborn tenacity to keep desperately ill babies alive, she has a lovely smile and she is infinitely feminine."
Another staffer adds, "There are babies no one else here thought would ever make it. They're at home now because Susan Luck battled to keep them alive."
The object of all this admiration is one of only about 15 women among 342 certified pediatric surgeons in the U.S. It is a demanding branch of medicine—emotionally and physically.
Last month, removing a cancerous thyroid from an 11-year-old boy, Dr. Luck was on her feet for seven hours in the OR. The tumor was thought to be benign, but lab tests revealed the cancer. Meanwhile the boy's parents waited outside, frantic to learn the cause of the delay. When one of the child's physicians informed Luck he had not yet told the distraught family about the cancer, she looked calmly at him and said, "You don't have any objections to my telling them what I found?"
After the operation she went immediately to the boy's family to reassure them that thyroid cancer victims have better than an 80 percent chance of surviving for as long as 30 years. She got home at 10 p.m.; dinner was a package of frozen vegetables.
Susan was a 13-year-old in Albuquerque, N.Mex. when she decided to become a doctor. (Her father sold business machines and forms.) She majored in biology at the University of New Mexico and took her M.D. at Colorado, where she was one of four women in a class of 85. After that, Luck was the first woman to complete surgical residencies in her specialty at two Chicago hospitals and one in Baltimore.
One of her specialties is repairing the abdominal walls of infants born with intestines or other organs outside their bodies. The operation, she says, "is worth every bit of effort, because eventually the children will be normal."
The challenge of an academic setting appeals to her—"I really wouldn't want to go into private practice," she says, "and do nothing but hernias and appendectomies." She is so devoted to her tiny patients that when she takes blood samples she wears a mask so they won't know it's Dr. Luck who is hurting them. At times she seems too absorbed in her work. "I didn't know about the Tet offensive for a couple of weeks," she remembers.
Since she joined the staff at Children's in 1977, she rarely has had time for dates—or even for the plants in her apartment, which overlooks Lake Michigan. "They get maternal deprivation," she sighs. "So would animals and children." Studying and collecting American Indian art is her main diversion.
Some male doctors are still reluctant to refer patients to her, but she thinks this may be due as much to her youth as to her sex. In any case she dismisses extravagant praise for her stamina. "Most men," she says, without a trace of sarcasm, "work as hard as I do."