20 Years, 20 Leaders: Vonda J. Wright, MD

Mar 18, 2019

"We’re always striving to meet someone else’s standard, but sometimes you need to take a step back and ask yourself what you really want."

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.

Vonda J. Wright, MD, is Chief of Sports Medicine at Northside Hospital Sports Medicine Network in Atlanta and founder of Women’s Health Conversations Global Health, Inc. 

Here’s what we learned from Dr. Wright:

Why did you choose to go into medicine or your related field? Initially, I was guided by my parents into medicine at a young age. I grew up in an Asian-American household on a farm in Kansas. We certainly didn’t live a life of luxury, but my parents invested heavily in my education. That, coupled with cultural pressures placed on my generation, was almost an expectation that I would become a doctor. 

I began my medical career as an oncology nurse and returned to medical school in my late 20s to become a doctor. I had an immediate interest in surgery and, as it turns out, I have mechanical hands – a great natural ability for surgeons.  

I was attracted to orthopedics and sports medicine for its focus on mobility throughout a person’s entire life, from birth to death. I feel that by saving or preserving movement, I’m saving lives, especially for metabolic issues, like diabetes, growing in prevalence today. 

What’s your core philosophy? Albert Einstein once said: Excellence is a habit, not a one-time occurrence. This quote has stuck with me over the years, shaping how I approach new opportunities and the next phases in my career. 

What motivates you? I’ve been given so much opportunity through my education and through my family’s support in my career. I think to whom much is given, much is expected, and this notion motivates me to use my talents and abilities to give back to others. 

How do you motivate others? My role is to teach and empower my patients so they can empower themselves. Patients must understand that they are worthy of an investment into their own health and wellbeing. I hope my investment in their health sparks a personal motivation for their lives.  

What challenges have you had to overcome? Personal career challenges seem trivial by comparison to the life or death challenges I’ve watched others face during my time as an oncology nurse. Yes, being part of the three percent of female orthopedic surgeons isn’t always easy, but at the end of the day, I’m healthy and capable. The career I have today was hard fought, but so worth the work it took to get here. 

Humans fail. Please share a time when you failed and what you did next to move forward. Failure happens in both big and small ways throughout our lives, but it’s how you evaluate your failure in the moment, not in the sum of all things. Look at the causes of your failure, change what you can, and move on. I have tried to do this throughout my life and it’s helped me move forward. The biggest lesson we can learn is that failure does not define you unless you let it.

Who was your most important mentor(s) and why? While there’s a lot of conversation surrounding mentorship and what to look for in that sort of guiding individual, I think that it’s important to recognize that mentorship exists on a spectrum, and that you get to experience the breadth and depth of that variety if you’re willing to ask the right questions. 

From my experience, there are three types of mentors:

  1. A mentor, or someone who you choose to help guide or teach you.
  2. A sponsor, or someone who helps you identify opportunities, such as connections that will enable you to network.
  3. And a champion, someone who is willing to stake his or her reputation for you.

But first, ask what you need from a mentor. This will help you to decide which mentors are needed when. 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned? Looking back to my time as a nurse, I think what benefitted me most was coming to terms with my capacity and recognizing that my abilities were more than adequate. 

We’re always striving to meet, reach and exceed someone else’s standard, but sometimes you need to take a step back from that and ask yourself what you really want. Ultimately, we’re holding ourselves to our own standard, and from there, it’s up to us to choose to meet those norms, or to go above and beyond and exceed them.

How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition? I try to measure my success contextually, through both my family life and work life. Through my work, I’ve often gauged my success traditionally: Did I finish my training, did I pass my exams, am I progressing and elevating myself within my practice? 

Outside of work, I’ll know that I’ve been successful if I succeed in raising smart, healthy children who are primed to enter the adult world. All my career success would mean nothing to me without a peaceful and cohesive family unit.

What do you see in store for the future of medicine and the related fields? We are currently living in the most important time in the history of medicine. Over the past century, we’ve witnessed and learned an incredible amount, ranging from technological advancements in medical tech and data, to expansions in the precision of personal and at-home medical care. We’re helping to put health care access in places it’s never been before. 

The growth and legacy of health care is amazing. We can’t get caught up in patting ourselves on the back because it will only serve to slow us down, so we need to be reminded from time to time that we must remain adaptive and forward-thinking. 

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in medicine and the medical sciences? From a practical standpoint, I’d tell the next generation of women to learn as much as possible – especially as it relates to technology and digital care. 

Beyond the technical component, I’d encourage them to pursue balance. Understand the push and pull between work and home life, and the times you just need to gut things out. My generation of practitioners grew up in an era where self-care was an afterthought. We were constantly gutting it out and the effects are evidenced by issues now like physician burnout.

I also hope that the next generation of women in medicine will take steps toward seeking out their own mentors, sponsors and champions, and not be phased or intimidated to ask for what they want and need. 

The Backstory on Dr. Wright

Dr Vonda J. Wright has been in practice for more than 20 years and began her career as a nurse, becoming coordinator of the Section of Clinical Research Oncology at Rush University Medical Center. As an MD, she was the Sports and Shoulder Fellow at the Hospital for Special Surgery from 2005 to 2006. In 2014, she became the inaugural medical director of sports medicine and at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in partnership with the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. 

She is passionate about motivational speaking and is a guest medical expert on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Dr. Oz and other media outlets.