In a Specialty of Mostly Men, Sarah Sandberg is Rare
By Laura Freeman
When you look at the class picture from almost any medical school, you can see how far women have come as physicians. However, cardiology is one specialty where you rarely see a female doctor. This is especially true of electrophysiology.
In welcoming Sarah Sandberg MD, FACC to Birmingham, Cardiovascular Associates and Brookwood Baptist Health are breaking that stereotype.
"Cardiology is such an interesting area of medicine. I'm surprised there aren't more women in the field," Sandberg said. "I was drawn to the specialty from the start, and thought I'd probably work in transplants. I hadn't really considered electrophysiology until I had two female mentors who were electrophysiologists. Right away, I knew this was the field for me.
"One of the things I like best is that this is an area where it's possible to actually cure a patient with one procedure. With a catheter ablation, I can eliminate a problem like supraventricular tachycardia so it doesn't bother the patient anymore. Even though common conditions like atrial fibrillation may be more of a matter of treating rather than curing, we can make a real difference in the patient's health and quality of life."
In some conditions, electrophysiologists can make a difference that is truly life saving.
"Some patients are walking around with dangerous heart rhythms like ventricular fibrillation that put them at risk for sudden death," Sandberg said. "This can happen even in young athletes. If we can detect the dangerous rhythm in time and intervene with a procedure and/or implantation of a defibrillator, we can give them an opportunity to live a longer, fuller life."
Electophysiologists work with the body's electrical system, particularly the nerves in and around the heart that govern the rhythm of the pulse. Using equipment attached to catheters threaded through the vascular system, they can correct a number of heart rhythm problems without leaving a scar and without the need for open heart surgery. A pulse through the catheter can eliminate a rogue nerve that is triggering a dangerously accelerated heart beat or a chaotic rhythm.
Since Sandberg seems to be the first female electrophysiologist in Birmingham and perhaps the only one in Alabama, the question that comes to mind is whether there are differences in how women physicians might approach this work or their interactions with patients.
"You might be able to generalize that some patients could find it more comfortable to deal with a physician of one or the other gender. However, each person is an individual. I can only say how I approach patient care," Sandberg said. "Communicating with patients is very important for me. I also like to take the broader view of helping patients participate in improving the quality of their own health. I can help them with as a physician, and teach them how they can help themselves with lifestyle changes like finding new ways to manage stress, eating better, becoming more active and stopping smoking. Sometimes it's just a matter of educating them that it's possible for them to take ownership of their own health and to show them how they can make it better."
After completing her studies in electrophysiology at Washington University in St. Louis, Sandberg worked in Missouri before coming to Birmingham in January.
"This is a wonderful opportunity to work with a highly respected team of cardiologists," she said. "It's also good to be back in the South again. I grew up in the Carolinas, and my husband is looking forward to warmer weather this spring."
Whether she's meeting with new patients at the Colonnade office of Cardiovascular Associates, or performing procedures at Brookwood Baptist Health or Grandview Medical Center, Sarah Sandberg, MD, is one of a kind--and an inspiring example of how women physicians are contributing to yet another field of medicine.