20 Years, 20 Leaders: Andrea Baldeck, MD

Oct 9, 2018

"Medicine is about preventing suffering wherever possible; help life wherever you find it. Compassion is paramount."

Our connection to the experiences of those who came before helps to define the present and future of medicine. The Foundation is celebrating 20 years by joining in conversation with 20 women leaders in all aspects of medicine to understand their stories and how their experiences will shape the next generation.

Andrea Baldeck, MD, is an internist, anesthesiologist, photographer, and author of eight books featuring landscapes, still life, and portraiture. She is a Fellow and current Board Chair of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Here's what we learned from Dr. Baldeck:

Why did you choose to go into medicine or your related field? When I was a child I was influenced by biographies of remarkable people. I read about Albert Schweitzer, his background as a musician, and his decision to become a doctor in the developing world. Photographs of him at Lambarene, in West Africa, captivated me. I studied music at Vassar and I was intrigued by the idea of combining the arts and medicine, along with the chance to work in the developing world.

What’s your core philosophy? Medicine is about preventing suffering wherever possible. As Schweitzer said; “Aides la vie ou se trouve”, help life wherever you find it. Compassion is paramount.

What motivates you? Equal parts curiosity and the drive to make things better. To right what seems to be wrong is a very ambitious aim for any mortal. But we keep hoping that with science we can get closer to setting the world right.

How do you motivate others? By example. Early in my medical career I worked in the developing world, in Haiti and Grenada. I was in the company of Mennonite missionaries, who go out into the world not to proselytize but to offer their expertise with the idea that if you provide skills, people will come to you and ask questions about what drives and sustains you.

What challenges have you had to overcome? Sexism in medicine. It’s less obvious now but in the mid-1970s it was quite different. I found myself in a male-centric would, full of the societal attitudes of men who were older than myself and trained in an unyielding and hierarchical world.

Humans fail. Please share a time when you failed and what you did next to move forward. I felt I fell short of the mark when I was working in the developing world. The hospital where I was had no intensive care unit, no ventilator, and there were two cases, both pediatrics, in which we did not have the means to keep the patients alive. It was beyond the capacity of the institution. I learned that I had to be very clear-sighted and not to promise what you can’t deliver.

Who was your most important mentor(s) and why? I had marvelous mentors, two of the few female physicians at the University of Pennsylvania when I was a medical student. They were very pragmatic, very empathetic, and clear-eyed about the difficulties one would encounter, as well as the opportunities. They encouraged the women who were their students to be very careful as to how they devoted their time, in their professional lives and personal lives. One got married and had children, one did not, and they spoke frankly about the personal costs of their decisions.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned? Make the decisions that are right for you as a person, not on the recommendations of people who are in authority and trying to validate their own place in the world.

How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition? My success, if I can call it that, is untraditional. I wanted to pursue another passion, photography. I couldn’t craft a part-time job out of my anesthesia practice, so I took a leap of faith and left it entirely to pursue photography. What I found was that I reached more people through photography than I ever could have in medicine working in the clinic or O.R. one patient at a time. I went back to Haiti and took portraits of people who had been treated at the hospital, which raised awareness for the hospital and the people of Haiti, as well as raising funds for its supporting foundation.

What do you see in store for the future of medicine and related fields? It’s a question of trying to balance technology with compassion. There are many marvelous breakthroughs in medicine, thanks to technology and clinical trials, but they don’t apply in a blanket way to all of the maladies experienced by humans. Progress is, as always, uneven. In today’s digital world, the physician can be distanced from the patient by the computer; eye contact and the human touch are not high-tech, but their power endures and cannot be neglected. All of these tools are needed to treat the whole patient.

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in medicine and the medical sciences? It’s increasingly important for women to reach levels of prominence in academia to provide more role models for women coming up through the ranks. There are many more women enrolled in medical school, yet their reach in academia and research is still relatively small. Women are needed to populate those upper echelons and reshape those models of success.

The Backstory on Dr. Baldeck

Dr. Baldeck received her BA from Vassar College where she was first in her class, Phi Beta Kappa, and her MD from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Alpha Omega Alpha. She was presented with the Janet Glasgow award for the top woman graduate at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1979.

Previously, she held the position of Clinical Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at the University of Pennsylvania and allied hospitals (Pennsylvania Hospital, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Graduate Hospital of Philadelphia).

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