My entire life, I have been surrounded by really strong, powerful women. Two in particular.
The first was my mother, an immigrant from the other side of the world who lived as a refugee for the first part of her life after fleeing the bloody India-Pakistan partition.
When we visited her childhood home in 2014, I saw a remote dusty town with no running water, no paved roads and very little evidence of commerce. There were no hopes and dreams anywhere in sight, and simply surviving was the only success most would ever achieve there.
By the age of 24, however, she was designing cars as the first woman hired in the United States as an engineer at the Ford Motor Co. The juxtaposition was staggering. The trajectory of her life seemed not just improbable, but impossible.
And it was at that moment – standing with her in central Pakistan – that I understood why the word impossible was not allowed in the Gupta household. Never. Not with a mother like mine.
Dr. Karin Muraszko hates that word as well. Born with spina bifida, an abnormality of the spinal cord, Karin had enormous difficulty walking her whole life and is now in a wheelchair. While she couldn’t hide her spinal cord abnormality, she never spent a lot of time talking about it. Instead, she came into the hospital earlier, stayed later and worked harder than everyone else. And that is saying something, because Karin is a pediatric neurosurgeon, a profession that required 100-hour work weeks during her training.
Like my own mother, Karin not only overcame, but flourished – and did it on the conventional playground of men. Neurosurgeons all over the world know Karin is the first woman to ever become a chair of neurosurgery in the United States, at the University of Michigan. What they may not know, however, is that she decided to get her ears pierced on the same day she decided to become a neurosurgeon. No joke. Karin told me she didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that she was a woman first, and a neurosurgeon second.
I know her story so well because I was one of the lucky ones to be trained by her. For seven years, during some of the most formative years of my life, Karin Muraszko was a mentor to me.
At the time I dedicated my life training to be a brain surgeon, Karin was right there by my side. For a time, there was likely no one in the world who spent more time with me or knew me better than Karin Muraszko. She was the only one who noticed the subtle signs my blood sugar might be dropping while I was operating – and opened a Jolly Rancher candy and placed it behind my mask. It was Karin who knew I preferred apple over watermelon.
We operated together for days on end. We saw hundreds of patients together, and all along, she taught me judgment, technique and compassion. She was the person I called when my confidence had been shattered, and my fortitude dissolved. She had no patience for whining, but she did take the time to remind me what my purpose was – as a surgeon, but also as a human.
We all need someone like Karin in our lives – someone who tells you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear, and with a smile.
Like my mother, Karin was always willing to share the lessons she had learned with a healthy dose of humility, while allowing me to earn her trust and feel truly valued. They both inspired simply by being who they were, sincerely and authentically. There is not enough of that in the world today, and yet I was fortunate to be surrounded by it.
Yes, when asked who changed my life, the answer is women – strong, powerful, women. They have shaped me. They have challenged me. They have reminded me that sometimes it takes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to unleash the very best of ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, they have made me a better father to my own three daughters. I now remind my girls every day that there are no rules. There are no molds. Those are both made to be shattered.
I tell my girls they can be whatever they want to be. No, nothing is really impossible. It is an audacious message, but achievable as well. And if they want proof, I just pick up the phone and call the women who changed my life.
#MyLifeChanger: In a tweet or Instagram post, tell us about the mentor, family member or once-in-a-lifetime friend that helped shape your life.