Disclosures: Hayes reports no relevant financial disclosures.
March 18, 2021
4 min read

Andrea Hayes, MD, FACS, blazed trail for Black women in pediatric surgical oncology

Disclosures: Hayes reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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Andrea Hayes, MD, FACS, has achieved multiple firsts during her career as a pediatric surgeon.

In 2004, Hayes became the first board-certified Black female pediatric surgeon in the U.S. Two years later, she became the first surgeon in the world to perform hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy on a pediatric patient, which has become the standard of care for children, adolescents and young adults with certain abdominal tumors. Her lab performs basic scientific research focused on rare pediatric sarcomas, and she has conducted a substantial amount of clinical research in the pediatric oncology field.

Quote from Andrea Hayes, MD, FACS

“I have been ‘steeped’ in pediatric oncology for decades since my initial training at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” Hayes, Byah Thomason Doxey-Sanford Doxey distinguished professor and chief of the division of general pediatric surgery at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said during an interview with Healio. “My career chose me. I have learned many lessons along the way and have been confronted with many barriers but have overcome them.”

Hayes spoke with Healio about what led her to pediatric surgical oncology, the hurdles she faced along the way as a Black woman and the advice she would give other women starting out in the field.

Healio: What led you to want to become a pediatric surgeon?

Hayes: I was in medical school at Dartmouth College and later, during my fourth-year sub-internship at Stanford, when I arrived on my first day, I was told that there was no more room for students on the general surgeon team, which was where I wanted to be. I then had to choose either pediatric surgery or orthopedic surgery.

I chose pediatric surgery, but was very disappointed because it was not what I set out to do. However, I fell in love with pediatric cancer surgery while on service with my surgery team, led by Stephen J. Shochat, MD, emeritus of St. Jude faculty. I became extremely excited about pediatric surgical oncology as a student on his service. That is when I knew that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My career chose me and it is what God put me on this earth to do.

Healio: What hurdles did you face along your career path as a Black woman?

Hayes: Some of the challenges I have faced have been in getting trained in pediatric surgery and in pediatric surgical oncology. When I applied to be a pediatric surgery fellow, I did not match the first time, second time or third time because there were no other Black pediatric surgeons. I am the first board-certified U.S. Black female pediatric surgeon. This was a huge hurdle to overcome. It was challenging at first, but I love my profession now.

I ended up getting hired at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, which is an outstanding hospital. I later came back to the U.S. and was hired at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., for 2 years, then for 14 years I was recruited to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where I was the chief of pediatric surgery for about 7 years. I am now at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, serving as surgeon-in-chief of North Carolina Children’s Hospital. I am also an endowed professor with tenure of surgery at The University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Healio: How did you overcome those challenges?

Hayes: I overcame many challenges by being patient, persistent, humble and realizing that God is in control. I did the work that I knew how to do and was diligent about it. I had been well-trained and was well-versed in what I was doing, so I put my nose down, did a good job and let God do the rest. It is also important to reach out to allies during difficult times. I had an ally in the person who hired me in Toronto, Jacob Langer, MD, and he looked out for me and made sure that I got in and got trained. Of course, we must do the work, but it is always great to have a mentor in your corner who supports you. That really is critical for anyone’s success in any profession because we cannot do it alone.

Healio: What has been one of the greatest accomplishments of your career so far?

Hayes: I would have to say performing hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy on a child. Although I was told many times along the way that this technique could not be done in pediatric patients, I was passionate about trying to help this subset of children who were dying at the time. It was worth the risk in trying to improve their survival, although there were some risks with the operation. The technique can take up to 20 hours, during which hundreds of abdominal tumors are removed and the abdominal cavity is washed with very hot chemotherapy. This technique has increased the survival rate among this pediatric patient population from 15% to 30% to 50% to 70%. This has been a great accomplishment of my career.

Healio: What advice would you give other women in the field?

Hayes: Do not let anyone dissuade you by saying things like, “This has never been done before” or, “This does not sound like it will work.” Those phrases, which I have heard in the past, do not mean that you should stop going after what you want.

It is also important to ensure that you have a team on your side, as well as mentors in your corner. Persist. Keep doing what you know to be right. Take baby steps initially and make progress every day.

For more information:

Andrea Hayes, MD, FACS, can be reached at UNC School of Medicine, Division of Pediatric Surgery, Campus Box 7223, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7223.