Dr. Carrie Stern Took a Year Off from Surgical Residency—and Founded a Startup
September 28, 2018 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
As Dr. Carrie Stern puts it, she has three jobs: She’s a plastic surgery resident, a mother of two boys, and the founder of MirrorMe3D, a startup that enables plastic surgeons to use 3D imaging for medical purposes. These days, the operating room takes up most of her time—in 2016, she participated in an historic surgery to separate twins who were born conjoined at the head—and she’s currently finishing up a fellowship in microsurgery. Here, she talks about running a company during residency, having her first son when she was an intern, and why taking a year “off” might be an even better idea than it seems.
NO ONE KNOWS WHERE MY INTEREST IN MEDICINE CAME FROM; I’m the only doctor in my family. My parents worked as a caterer and a schoolteacher. They were encouraging when I told them what I wanted to do, but my mom was a little surprised because I was so terrified of going to the doctor as a child. I’d be the kid screaming bloody murder when I had to get a shot at the pediatrician’s office.
IN COLLEGE, I WORKED FOR A PLASTIC SURGEON as a summer job, and seeing what it actually entails piqued my interest. Plastic surgeons get to operate on all different age groups, from newborns to older patients, and on every part of the body. Unlike neurologists or gynecologists or orthopedic surgeons, they operate on all different types of tissues, from the head all the way down to the toes. That’s what hooked me.
ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT POINTS IN MY CAREER was having my first son when I was an intern. Our schedule was structured so that everyone got a month of vacation at a time, and we weren’t allowed to spread it out. So I scheduled a C-section for the start of that month off. My doctor wanted me to wait six weeks before going back, but I was only able to take five. It was hard. When you’re visibly pregnant, everyone asks you how you’re doing. But after you’ve had the baby, it’s not always obvious to people who don’t know you that you’ve just given birth. So the small considerations that you had when you were pregnant are no longer there, and you’re dealing with far greater challenges, like finding time to eat and drink and nurse or pump. You’re exhausted not only from a demanding surgical residency schedule, but also because you have a newborn at home, and it’s emotionally draining to leave your baby all day. People were supportive, but it wasn’t top of mind the way it is when they can see a visibly pregnant person in front of them operating or running around taking care of patients.
WHEN I DECIDED TO HAVE ANOTHER KID, I had finished about four years of residency, and I knew that I couldn’t repeat what I’d done after my first child. So I took a year off after my general surgery residency ended and had my second son, intending to do research until my plastic surgery residency started. And that’s the year that MirrorMe3D was founded.
I’VE BEEN INTERESTED IN 3D TECHNOLOGY since I was a medical student. I worked on some projects with 3D animators, developing tools for patient education, but the concept of using them in plastic surgery was new. When we were starting the company, our early conversations were very striking because doctors were saying, “I wish we were able to do this,” and engineers were saying, “We can do something like that, but I don’t know what the application is for it.” There was a huge disconnect.
MIRRORME3D WAS FOUNDED IN JANUARY 2015. We started out by putting together some 3D tissue models and exhibiting them at one of the big plastic surgery conferences, just to see if there was interest, and there was. So we decided to run with it, got some early investors, and tried to push the company forward. It was not the year off that I had envisioned, to say the least.
STARTING A COMPANY WAS A WHOLE DIFFERENT WORLD. It was fun to dress in normal business attire instead of scrubs, and wear my hair down instead of up in a bun all the time. It was all totally outside my normal experience, and I definitely made some naive mistakes in the beginning. I probably pretended I knew more about certain things than I did. But I had great mentors, and I learned.
THE COMPANY WAS UP AND RUNNING when I started my plastic surgery residency, so I had two jobs for a while—actually, three: CEO, mom, surgeon. People would say, “If the company’s so great, why don’t you quit residency and focus on it?” It was especially hard when investors asked that question. But I had spent so much time in residency already, and I liked it. Quitting was never on the table. When I’m done with training and have a bit more autonomy, being more involved with the company is something I look forward to. But at the time, it became clear that I needed to find someone else to lead the troops at MirrorMe3D, because if people were waiting on me to make decisions while I was in surgery all day—well, that just wasn’t working.
IT TOOK ME OVER A YEAR OF DESPERATE SEARCHING to find someone I felt comfortable handing this baby over to. Finally, I hired an executive VP, Jordan Mills, who quickly rose to CEO. I was happy to give that title away to her, because she’s exceptional. But it was hard to let go in other ways. I quickly realized that calling up every day and asking, “What’s going on with this? What’s going on with that?” was slowing everything down. So, once trust was established, Jordan took over all of the day-to-day operations, and I couldn’t be prouder of where it is now. The business has expanded into a software platform that integrates 3D imaging and technology into the pre-operative planning phase, operative execution, and post-operative analysis—so we’re way beyond models at this point.
RIGHT NOW, I’M DOING A FELLOWSHIP IN MICROSURGERY. I’ve become especially interested in working with cancer patients on reconstructive surgery. My work isn’t just about the cancer; it’s about putting patients back together and making them whole again, whether it’s something that is visible to them or not.
SOMETIMES FRIENDS AND FAMILY don’t quite understand the type of plastic surgery that I do. They’ll want me to give them Botox or fillers, and they can’t understand why I don’t have access to them.
IT’S A DAILY STRUGGLE MANAGING A SURGICAL SCHEDULE. I get to work at 6:00 or 6:30 a.m., often operate all day, and try to make it home for the kids’ bedtime. Sometimes I’ll go home for bedtime and then go back to see more patients—my kids don’t know the difference. They think I sleep at home even though I don’t sometimes. But it would probably be challenging to maintain that balance no matter what my job was. Most moms, whether they’re founders of companies or surgeons or doctors or work in other professions, often put themselves last, and I try not to do that—at least, not always. I firmly believe that you need time to yourself. I do simple things, like getting a manicure and pedicure. I try to exercise. Maybe I’ll get a massage. I only need an hour, but that time needs to be there.
MY HUSBAND SAYS I’M ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO DOESN’T NEED MUCH SLEEP. I believe in that a little bit, but I think it’s something your body just gets used to. I probably function better on less sleep than most people, but there’s no secret. It helps that I’ve made peace with giving up some control, not just in business, but in general. Like, if my kids’ clothes don’t match when they go to school, it’s not a big deal. Or if their clothes are a little too small or big, and the older son’s wearing the younger son’s stuff, it’s fine. You know that old book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff? It’s absolutely true. There’s no room for that. There are far more important things in life.
I ALSO ATTRIBUTE A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF MY SUCCESS to my husband, who has been supportive of all of my decisions, from going to medical school to doing a surgical residency and starting a company. He has always been there for me, and also for our kids throughout the process. He has stepped up in ways that many fathers don’t have to, traditionally, even in families where both parents work. Having no say over my schedule for many, many years with small children, I had to rely on him heavily, and he helped me get through it.
I THINK GIVING PATIENTS THE TIME THEY WANT is important, and being professional is paramount. A patient said to me this morning, “So, is that just your name?” At first, I didn’t understand, and then I realized he was referring to my last name, Stern. I said, “I don’t know, you tell me,” and after I finished the appointment he said, “Yeah, it’s not just your name, and that’s a good thing. You take things seriously, and you take care.” And it’s true—I do.
Photographs by Rockie Nolan.