Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dr. Emily Benson, Renaissance Woman

Renaissance Woman

Athlete. Artist. Surgeon. Dr. Emily Benson has achieved more in 34 years than most people ever dream of—and she’s just beginning.
By Lisa Snider

Dr. Emily Benson arrives late to our interview; she had to perform an emergency surgery to repair a crushed ankle.

Though she has just come from the OR, Benson looks like she stepped out of a Noxzema commercial—and her fresh complexion mirrors her demeanor and outlook in every way.

As the Director of Orthopedic Trauma Surgery for Ventura County Medical Center for the past year and a half, Benson is a glass half-full kind of gal, with a take-it-as-it-comes attitude. “I go to work and I never know what my day is going to be like,” says a smiling Benson, who appears to like it that way.

She’s something of a Renaissance woman, whose background and pastimes read like the chronicles of a super-achiever. In the mid-‘90s, she toted her guitar and a pocketful of original folk songs around New England for two years. During her last year as an undergraduate pursuing a degree in biology at Brown University, she made a push to take up music professionally. “I tried to make it as a musician for a year and it got really hard…There’s not a lot of money unless you make it big.”

She soon tired of “playing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ for frat boys,” and decided to give herself a one-year deadline to get a recording contract. After living at poverty level for a year, she gave up and did what any struggling musician would do: she enrolled at Boston University Medical School. “I figured medicine was the next logical step…something that sounded fun to me that wasn’t like a desk job.” And what musician hasn’t thought of hanging up their guitar for a stethoscope? Benson explains matter-of-factly, “There’s a lot of scientific overlap between music and medicine.”

These days, the 34-year-old’s song choices are a little different, and she still enjoys strumming from time to time.

“Mostly when I pick up the guitar it’s my classical guitar.” And she doesn’t perform a surgery without firing up the CD player. “I like something that has a beat to it, it keeps everyone moving…Today I had a classic rock day: Rolling Stones, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac.”

Before the music, Benson played semi-professional soccer for the Rhode Island Stingrays. As a center mid-fielder in the days before Mia Hamm and the U.S. women’s national soccer team won at the Olympics, she played for nothing to small crowds. Since then, the team has become more organized and turned pro. Benson still plays soccer, but nowadays her teammates are residents at the hospital.

When it comes to hobbies, Benson leans toward the extreme. As an avid snowboarder, surfer, SCUBA diver, kayaker, motorcyclist, and recreational triathlete, she cops to having a propensity for adrenaline sports, which seems to go hand-in-hand with her work. As she puts it, “I like the patients who like the same things I like!”

After enduring harsh New England winters, Benson needed a change. Fortunately, a fellowship in Southern California had her name on it, and when the job at Ventura County Medical Center became available, she found her home in Ojai. “It may be the only area in California where I am totally comfortable,” she says.

Benson takes full advantage of the coastal and mountain surroundings, and can be found hiking and mountain biking her favorite trails in Matilija Canyon with her two rat terriers, kayaking at Lake Casitas, or catching waves at Surfers’ Point. “I’m a serious beginner,” she says of her newfound love of surfing.

Dr. Benson's recreational pursuits, however, never shift her focus away from her true calling. “Orthopedics right now is my passion,” she says. “This is the time in my career that is most exciting for me.”

She has a genuine, nearly infectious, adoration for what she does and who she does it for: “Ventura County Hospital provides fantastic medical care…and my clinic staff is phenomenal. They’re really interested in helping people.” According to Benson, you should be so lucky to end up at County, which is in the process of becoming an official trauma center. Not only is the medical care superb, the staff’s bedside manner is unparalleled. “The doctors are very altruistic,” she explains. “When you work for a doctor with that philosophy, it’s easy for the staff to jump on board.”

Benson retells the story a patient who came to the area on business from the Netherlands and got into a terrible car accident, which left him alone at the hospital, his entire family and support system thousands of miles away. “A lot of us were on the phone with his insurance, his personal doctor, and the people who were going to be taking care of him back home,” she tells me. This kind of personal attention is rare in many modern hospitals—but it’s de rigueur here. In fact, it’s part of the hospital’s culture:

“The philosophy is that everyone deserves a high level of care, regardless of insurance status. And that is extremely rare…The level of compassion I see here is remarkable for a publicly funded hospital.”

As if she hasn’t achieved enough already (she is, after all, only 34), Dr. Benson is conversant in Spanish and “works on it everyday.” She’s also a medical illustrator whose remarkable artistic talent has resulted in her work being published in a sports medicine journal.

It appears that many chapters remain in the chronicles of this Renaissance woman. Thankfully, she does not juggle or joust. Otherwise I might feel like a slacker.