Alumni Profile: Mary Austin, MD
Surgeon’s career shaped by childhood diagnosis
As a pediatric surgeon, Mary Austin, MD’00, MPH’05, performs 300-500 wide-ranging cases per year. She is also part of a large team that does about 10-15 in utero repairs of myelomeningocele, the most common form of spina bifida, which is, coincidentally, the same problem she was born with.
“My diagnosis was a surprise to my mom and dad. When I was born, the doctors told my mom I may need braces to walk and potentially have great difficulty. I had none of that,” said Austin, who was born with the opening in her lower back that was closed shortly after birth.
Although Austin has no outward signs of myelomeningocele, she does have neurogenic bowel and bladder, a condition caused by injury to the spinal cord that results in problems with bowel and bladder control.
“Initially, I was treated in Louisville, which led to challenges since I lived in rural Kentucky, about 80 miles from the hospital. At that time, there wasn’t well coordinated care for patients with spina bifida,” Austin said. “It was difficult for my parents living so far away. Also, I’m not sure there was a lot of knowledge about how to best manage my neurogenic bladder and bowel. This led to me getting pretty sick at times.”
Austin said she always wanted to be a doctor, and for many years she wanted to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, influenced by her own medical history. She pursued this specialty through summer work and research, but during her third year of medical school she did a clinical rotation in trauma and critical care and “fell in love with the people, the patients and everything I got to do. At that point I knew I wanted to be a general surgeon.”
She was encouraged and supported in her decision by James O’Neill, Jr., MD, emeritus professor of Pediatric Surgery.
“From the first day I met with him in his office, to this day, he has been one of the most influential people in my life. He was very supportive of me. I decided to stay on at Vanderbilt for my general surgery residency and received excellent training.”
Austin, who neither hid her diagnosis nor talked openly about it during residency, did her fellowship in pediatric surgery and surgical critical care at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles where she met her husband, Andras Heczey, MD, a pediatric oncologist. They have three young daughters and live a busy life in Houston, Texas, where Austin practices at the McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center and MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“I really love the connections that I have with our patients and their parents. You get to see your patients grow up and become a part of their lives. It’s very special,” Austin said of her surgical practice. “There is honestly no greater trust that one can give another person than to let them operate on their child.”