A conversation with vascular surgeon and Clemson alumna Ashley Rickey
WINSTON SALEM, North Carolina – In 2006, Ashley Rickey graduated from Clemson University with a B.S. in microbiology, a degree path she chose as the foundation for a medical career. Rickey knew from her high school days that she wanted to be a physician, so it was no surprise when she began medical school at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston right after finishing her undergraduate degree.
After medical school, Rickey completed her general surgery residency, also at MUSC, before placing into a vascular surgery fellowship at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At present, Rickey has joined a team of six other vascular and vein specialists at Novant Health in Winston-Salem as a vascular surgeon.
In the interview that follows, Rickey speaks about her Clemson experience and how it brought about her medical education, while giving an inside perspective on the journey into a physician’s career.
Q: What is your title, and what is your day-to-day like?
A: I’m a vascular surgeon, so we take care of all of the problems related to the peripheral venous and arterial systems. From day-to-day, I see patients in the office a couple days a week, then I’m in the operating room a couple more days a week, and I kind of do various things with the rest of the time. I split my time between seeing patients in the office, pre-op and post-op, and doing surgeries.
Q: Is vascular surgery what you always thought you’d do?
A: I knew I wanted to be a physician in high school. My undergrad is in microbiology at Clemson. I thought that was a good pre-med prep major. I went to MUSC for med school and close to 50 percent of my class were Clemson grads and a lot of us were microbiology and biochemistry. Then, when I got into the anatomy lab in the first year of med school, I figured out that I wanted to do surgery. That’s when I knew.
Q: How did you decide on vascular surgery?
A: Through med school, being hands-on in the anatomy lab, I knew I wanted to do something sort of hands-on. That sort of threw me into surgical specialties. I did a residency in general surgery, and that’s how most of these doors usually open. Toward the end of general surgery, I became interested in vascular, because it’s a specialty that handles a wide range of problems and areas of the body that you can operate on. I like the patient population, and I got along with the other surgeons’ personalities.
Q: What was medical school like?
A: I didn’t think it was too bad. The first two years were pretty fun. It’s like extended college; you’re mostly going to classes during the day, but the classes are small. So, you know everybody and you make great friends and great relationships with your colleagues. I still have tons of friends from med school that I talk to all the time. The third and fourth years, you get into the hospital and get to see patients. That’s when it becomes really fun because you’re getting to do what you’ve been wanting to do the whole time.
Q: Did you want to end up in North Carolina?
A: Yes. Residencies and fellowships are match processes, meaning that you go around and interview at all different places, then you rank the programs you want to go to in order, and all the programs ranks their applicants in order. It goes into a computer and one day, everybody finds out where they’re going. You can couples’ match, too. So, in medical school, my husband and I were in the same class, and we both matched into our general surgery residencies together. We wanted to stay in Charleston, and we were able to do that. Then I found a fellowship by looking at all of the different ones available, and I matched into a fellowship at Wake Forest. That’s where I wanted to be for that training, because they have a great program. I grew up in Clemson, and it’s not that far from there. I like this area of the country. Then, just getting to know the area of Wake Forest, I ended up with a job at Novant Health.
Q: How did Clemson prepare you for your career?
A: I think mainly with my major. I was in microbiology, so I took all of the anatomy classes and pre-med classes that you would need for medical school. Then, also being with other students who were on the pre-med course helped to do that as well. There were pre-med societies and groups that I was active in that sort of promoted the medical path, and I had all of the information I needed to do it. I worked with Dr. (Jean) Bertrand in the animal science department, and she did research out at the dairy farm. So, I spent a lot of time out at the dairy farm. They have cows there, and they studied how chemicals in their stomachs changed with different diets they were fed. I remember spending a lot of time out there and in the lab at Clemson.
Q: How much do you collaborate with other people in the medical field?
A: All day, every day. I think medicine these days is very much a team effort. Just being in the operating room, there’s a surgeon, there’s an anesthesia team on the other side that you’re constantly communicating with, there are nurses and assistants. It’s just constant; the whole process is team-oriented. Then, when taking care of patients in the hospital, you rely on your nursing staff to continually monitor them throughout the day. Even in the office, you’re always working with other people. Lots of people have complex problems, and you’re contacting their other physicians and talking to your colleagues all the time, too.
Q: Have things changed in the medical field since you started med school?
A: I would say it’s constantly changing. Just in the field of surgery, within the past 10 or 15 years, the laparoscopic and robotic surgeries have become more common and more well-developed. There’s always new technology. Then, within vascular surgery, we do a lot of endovascular procedures, which is our version of a minimally invasive surgery. There’s always some new innovation in all of those fields.
Q: Did you encounter any obstacles or struggles on your way through your education?
A: Sure, I think we all do. Taking care of sick patients, or even having a patient who dies – which every doctor has at some point – it can be hard. I think going to college, and med school, and transitioning into a career, emotions are something we all deal with. Also, it’s a huge commitment; it’s not just a job, it’s part of your life. I think everyone struggles with the balance between work and family life.
Q: Is vascular surgery a male-dominated specialty?
A: It is when you’re out in practice; I think most groups are still mostly male. I’m the only female in our group. Where I did my fellowship, there was one female attending vascular surgeon. But I think general surgery residencies are about 50/50 male-to-female right now, so in training, and in med school, it’s equalizing. It will just be longer until we see more females out in practice.
Q: Did the lack of women in practice provide any challenges for you?
A: I’ve actually been very lucky, and I’ve had very supportive attendings and residents in training. I never was in a situation where I felt awkward. My partners now – I have six male partners – they all have families, and they’re family guys with children and wives, and they’re also very supportive. I feel very lucky for the situation I’m in. One of my current partners is actually a Clemson grad, and I have no doubt that that helped him want to recruit me into the group. You sort of instantly bond with other Clemson alum that you meet along the way.
Q: What is your advice to an undergraduate student on the pre-med track?
A: I think any shadowing opportunities are always helpful, just to connect with physicians and see what their day-to-day lives are like. There are so many different specialties, and to see a variety of them, to know what your life could be like one day if you chose that specialty, is helpful. I think it’s a great field, because we have the privilege of taking care of patients and being involved in their lives in ways that you wouldn’t get to in any other job.
Questions for Rickey can be sent through Greg Sullivan, a corporate public relations specialist at Novant Health, at firstname.lastname@example.org.