By: Mollie Barnes
This September, Elizabeth Shuman, MD, joins the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery as its newest clinician and assistant professor. She previously had been working with the team as a fellow after completing medical school and residency in Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery at University of California, San Francisco.
She said getting a job at Keck Medicine of USC was a “dream come true.”
“Dr. Johns is one of the foremost voice specialists in the country and Dr. O’Dell is one of the foremost airway specialists in the country, so it was really a natural top choice for me for fellowship,” Shuman said. “I was really honored to match here for fellowship. The mentorship I received as a fellow was outstanding. When I was offered a job at USC, it was a dream come true to be among those who I revere and admire so much. It felt like the best feather in my cap to be offered a job and to stay with this program.”
An unusual path
Most people might think music and medicine are two fields on the opposite end of the academic spectrum. But for Shuman, going to medical school after graduating with a bachelors of arts in music seemed like a natural progression after growing up in a family of health professionals, who are also musicians. Her father was an anesthesiologist, her mother is a nurse practitioner, and her grandfather was a physician, too.
“For me it was totally the natural path,” she said. She pursued her undergraduate in music because she loved it.
“But then, medicine also seemed like a familiar path,” she said. “However, to everyone else in the world it seems like a big quantum leap.”
After her bachelor’s program, she attended the Cal State Fullerton post bacccalaureate program in pre-health professions, an intensive two-year program for people who have an undergraduate degree in something other than science and want to pursue a career in health professions.
“It was quite challenging,” she said. “I would say it borders on the academic rigor of medical school.”
Music really helped prepare her for the academic rigor of medical school and residency, she said.
“Music performance is a lifelong dedication to something — you’re constantly in rehearsals to improve your craft, and you’re constantly striving for the next best thing,” she said. “In that way, music and medicine are very similar. Even though the actual content of what you’re doing every day looks different.”
Now, as a full time faculty member of USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology, she sees her own patients and trains residents and fellows in complex surgeries.
“I realized [ear, nose and throat] ENT, and particularly laryngology, is so wonderful, because you’re thinking through complex problems and managing things medically and through specialized surgery,” she said. “The issues we manage are so innate to people’s quality of life and the human experience — breathing, speaking and swallowing —all of these things that we take for granted every day until there’s a problem.”
One of the most challenging — and interesting — things Shuman said she learned during her fellowship was phonomicrosurgery, which is surgery performed under a microscope on someone’s vocal cords. Vocal folds are usually less than a centimeter long.
“They’re super tiny and require very precise and careful handling of tissues,” she said. “In residency, you get a little bit of exposure to that, but in fellowship you get this experience week after week after week after week.”
In her new role, she gets to teach others the same skills she learned in her fellowship.
“Once I felt comfortable enough to take the lead in cases, then shifting to a more educational role was a great learning experience, too,” she said. “To be able to not only feel confident enough with these fine skills in my own hands, but then to supervise somebody else doing it and help them to troubleshoot and refine those skills has been really rewarding. It’s an experience I don’t think I would have had to this degree anywhere else.”
The best thing about being a faculty member so far has been having the trust of both her patients and her trainees.
“It feels amazing to have the trust of patients and trainees to utilize the skills that I’ve developed along this path to help treat these specialized problems,” she said. “It is an incredible honor to be in that position.”