October 5, 2017

It’s all about the patient for surgical oncologist Solórzano

Surgical oncologist Carmen Solórzano, M.D., senses she has a reputation for being tough on residents. It doesn’t bother her.

Tenacity, inquisitiveness and exactness are hallmarks of Carmen Solórzano, M.D.’s, approach to her career as a surgical oncologist. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Surgical oncologist Carmen Solórzano, M.D., senses she has a reputation for being tough on residents. It doesn’t bother her.

You don’t get to be a professor of Surgery, chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology, and Director of the Vanderbilt Endocrine Surgery Center without setting exacting standards, both for yourself and those who work with you.

Solórzano comes by her tenacity honestly. She was born and raised in Managua, Nicaragua, and left the war-torn region in 1985 at age 19 to pursue a U.S. education, as her parents had.

The instability during the Nicaraguan revolution depleted Solórzano’s parents’ savings, so she initially attended Miami Dade Community College, but as a resident alien, she was able to borrow money and secure a job, which allowed her to complete her undergraduate education at the University of Florida, from which she graduated in 1989.

“There was a lot of unrest and the country became fairly poor. I came to the U.S. and studied but then I didn’t go back to Nicaragua. I liked it here. A lot of my friends have gone back. My parents are still there,” she said, adding that while there was pressure for her to return home, she didn’t feel that medicine was as advanced there. “So, I stayed.”

Interested in science since high school, and perhaps influenced by the death of her grandmother from breast cancer, Solórzano enrolled at the University of Florida College of Medicine and graduated in 1993.

“I thought that maybe being a doctor was mostly related to being a surgeon. That’s clearly not the case,” she said in explaining the pull toward surgery. “I like the immediacy of someone having a problem and I can fix it and I can see the results right away,” she said. “I like working with my hands.”

After earning her medical degree, she did her general surgery internship and residency at Shands Hospital, University of Florida.

“The cancer interest was more as I was exposed to some of my mentors in residency as I trained to be a surgeon. My chairman was a cancer surgeon and some of the people I looked up to were cancer surgeons. I was influenced by the idea that there was something you could do with surgical procedures for some patients, and in some cases cure cancer, but not all cases.”

During training, she did two postdoctoral research fellowships, one in the Department of Surgery at the University of Florida College of Medicine; and a second in surgical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she subsequently did a surgical oncology clinical fellowship. She came to Vanderbilt in 2010 and has established herself as an expert in the field of endocrine/neuroendocrine tumors.

“It’s like a puzzle. With endocrine diseases you have to figure out with each patient — what hormone is up or down, where is the cancer coming from? It’s a bit of a mystery, and there is a bit of thinking that goes on.

“And there is a variety of endocrine tumors. They can be in the neck, they can be in the abdomen, or in the organs. I get to operate on various parts of body; I like that.

“I think it also has to do with exposure to people who I really liked who were doing that type of surgery. A lot of times we choose to go into a field because of the people we saw who were doing it so well and were excellent doctors.”

While she focuses on endocrine tumors at Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital, she performs general surgical oncology at the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, which makes for a varied caseload.

“Which one is my favorite? I love them all. I’ve developed an interest in parathyroid tumors and adrenal tumors in particular. Yet, one of the most common glands I take out is the thyroid. It affects so many people. Parathyroid tumors can be small and tend to hide, not always in the same spot. They are the least likely to be cancerous, but they do cause trouble to patients.

“I take care of a lot of cancers with fairly excellent prognosis. I like that. Cancer patients are the most thankful folks and nice people. Overall, it’s very rewarding to take care of patients whether it’s cancer or not. It’s very rewarding to get to know your patients and they come back and thank you for what you did. The honest truth is I have fun taking care of them.”

Surgical oncologist Carmen Solórzano, M.D., is an expert in the field of endocrine/neuroendocrine tumors and enjoys the varied caseload she sees at Vanderbilt. (photo by Joe Howell)

As Solórzano completed her training and settled into her practice, she found that there were few, if any, female professors of surgery blazing a trail for her, but she never wavered from her plan to practice surgery in a male-dominated field and to advance in leadership roles.

In fact, she was recently elected vice president of the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons.

“I guess naively I thought, ‘I want to be a surgeon, I’m going to be a surgeon.’ There are challenges. It’s better, but there’s a lot to be done still. We don’t see a lot of women in the profession who have advanced to professor level. We need to work more on that and positions of leadership in the Medical Center and medical school. It’s complicated. I don’t think there is a simple answer to it.”

Solórzano typically arrives in her office by 6:30 a.m. each day for meetings. Surgery begins at 7:30 a.m. She said she enjoys the teaching aspect of working in an academic medical center, alongside resident physicians.

“I have an occasional reputation for being tough on them. I think you learn the most when you are expected to know things, so I expect a lot. I expect you to know your subject, to show up prepared, to do the best you can for your patient. In the end it’s all about the patient.”

In her free time, Solórzano likes to snowboard and water ski. She and her partner, Mary Peters, enjoy traveling and gardening. She returns to Nicaragua about once a year, and her parents come to visit often. Solórzano enjoys her job as much, if not more, than she ever has.

“I love what I do and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”