Rochester’s first female surgeon reflects on her career – Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER – Dr. Linda Chao Butterfield remembers the first surgery she performed after joining Olmsted Medical Group in 1979. Ophthalmologist Butterfield implanted an intraocular lens in a patient at Olmsted Community Hospital in Rochester.

“After I got my IOL in and the implant, the nurses said, ‘Why don’t you take the patient to his room? You know, because he’s a very special patient.'”

Butterfield took the patient up the elevator to the second floor of the hospital. When the doors opened, they met a crowd.

“I saw that the hallway was full of hospital staff and patients, so we were all clapping and cheering, and it was an unforgettable day,” Butterfield said.

Born in China and raised in Chicago, Butterfield spent nearly three decades at Olmsted Medical Center, leaving a legacy in Rochester’s medical community.

Anticipating Ophthalmology

Butterfield and his family moved to the US in 1959 when he was a child. A year earlier, his father was killed in a military conflict between Taiwan and China. After her death, instead of taking a government pension, Butterfield said her mother took a lump sum payment.

“Then he lost all that money because of the relatives’ trust,” he said. “They said, ‘Oh, well, I’ll handle this for you,’ and so on.”

Growing up poor in southwest Chicago, Butterfield said he was no stranger to hard work. When it came time to go to college, he got a full ride at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying chemistry and physics.

“It was really chaotic on campus,” he said. “It was between 1966 and 1970, and there were demonstrations everywhere.”

Some of these protests criticized the Dow Chemical Company, which manufactured napalm used in the Vietnam War. This turned Butterfield away from a career in chemistry.

“I went to talk to the dean — his name was Julian Frankenberg, a wonderful guy,” Butterfield said. “He said, ‘You got the grades, why don’t you apply to medical school?’ And I’m like, ‘Really? I never thought about it.'”

Frankenberg referred Butterfield to Albert Schweitzer’s books, and after Butterfield decided to apply to medical school, Frankenberg helped him apply to five schools. He graduated from the University of Chicago.

“They say more than half of the medical class today is women, which is great,” Butterfield said. “But at the time I joined in 1970, there were 90 students in my class and only 10 were women.”

Despite the gender imbalance, Butterfield said the faculty in her medical program were very supportive.

Before Butterfield pursued ophthalmology as his specialty, heart surgery caught his eye.

“It was the first time our hospital at U of C had gotten a cardiopulmonary bypass machine for heart surgery, and it was so new. When I toured cardiology, I was so excited, so I was telling my professors, ‘Heart surgeons I want to be.’ And then they say, ‘Christ, this woman doesn’t know her limits,'” he said with a laugh.

When Butterfield’s ophthalmology rotation came around, his love of physics made studying optics exciting for him. He decided to pursue a career in that specialty, which requires advanced medical and surgical training to treat a variety of conditions affecting the eyes. After graduating from medical school, Butterfield completed an ophthalmology research fellowship at Harvard University and a three-year surgical residency at Yale University.

As with many doctors, Butterfield ended up in Rochester because of the Mayo Clinic. Her husband, Dr. Joseph Butterfield, an allergist and immunologist, joined the Mayo Clinic, where he works today. Then Linda asked to work there.

“When I interviewed for a job at Mayo, I was offered three different jobs, but I couldn’t do the surgery,” he said. “So I was thinking, ‘Oh, no,’ because that’s what I trained for.”

He turned to what was then known as the Olmsted Medical Group, where he met Dr. James Hartfield and Dr. Harold “Hal” Wente, the founder of OMG. When Butterfield was on OMG’s small but growing clinical staff, she became the team’s first female ophthalmic surgeon.

The Mayo Clinic would hire its first female surgeon, colorectal surgeon Dr. Heidi Nelson, in 1989.

By the time Butterfield became an eye surgeon, the field was seeing major advances in care, such as Dr. Harold Ridley’s invention of artificial lenses that could be surgically implanted into the eyes of people who had cataracts removed.

“He designed the first intraocular lens, and he implanted the first one in 1949,” Butterfield said. “At first, the medical community was against it because for centuries surgeons were just taking things out of the body. He was the first to put something in the body. It was completely against the conventional wisdom.”

In the 1990s, when Butterfield was well into his medical career, another breakthrough in ophthalmology appeared: laser refractive surgery, also known as LASIK. Butterfield sought training in laser surgery at the Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis. He recalled how doctors there would volunteer to supervise his surgeries as he learned new techniques.

“That was an example of camaraderie and the respect that people had for each other, and it was great,” he said. “Later, when I had time, I’d come in and sit with the younger surgeons. It’s nice to have you there, just in case there’s a question or something unusual happens.”

Butterfield also did research while working in Rochester. When OMG became Olmsted Medical Center and the new entity opened a Research Department in 1990, Butterfield had the opportunity to conduct clinical research with Dr. Barbara Yawn.

“They say the three pillars of a good organization are patient care, research and education, so I had the opportunity to do research,” he said. “It was a privilege.”

Ultimately, Butterfield’s surgical career ended in 2008. A few years before her retirement, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and heart disease and received treatment at the Mayo Clinic. But that didn’t stop his medical studies.

“After treatment, I was accepted to the University of Chicago, where I went to medical school, at the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics,” Butterfield said. “That was interesting because it gave me the opportunity to learn about medical ethics in many different areas. So I was able to be a visiting professor in several places.”

Throughout her career, Butterfield said she never felt marginalized in Rochester as an Asian American female physician.

“Because I help so many people, I will say, because of my practice growing up here and being an Asian American woman, but I never experienced prejudice,” she said. “I really think people don’t care what race, gender, or skin color the doctor is. What they want is a competent, caring, accessible doctor. That’s been my experience, anyway.”

Butterfield developed deep relationships with non-physician colleagues: ophthalmic technicians, surgical assistants, nurses.

“Doug, Brenda, Leslie, Joni, Gae, Renelle and Alex,” she said. “They were so good, such conscientious workers, and most of them had been with me for more than 20 years.”

After retirement, Butterfield contributed opinion columns to the Post Bulletin as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board under the direction of Greg Sellnow.

“Sexism took other forms, and there were negative predictions about how the nursing staff would treat female medical students,” Butterfield recalled in a 2011 Post Bulletin column about female friendships in medicine. “As it turned out, those stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Along the way, as the Butterfields progressed in their careers, they started a family. Butterfield and her husband, Joe, have three sons, and she said they stay busy with their sons’ activities.

“We volunteered for training and everything else, bringing coffee and donuts,” Butterfield said. “Instead of sitting on another committee, I was interested in being with the children.”

She taught math and science and judged science fairs through the Boys & Girls Club of Rochester, and Joe went camping with the boys when they were in Cub Scouts.

The Butterfields also bonded over music. Joe plays the violin, Linda plays the piano, and their children joined the proverbial family band on different instruments.

“It was a busy life, especially with the kids and their activities involved,” she said. “Life here has been wonderful.”

And while Butterfield said she and her husband didn’t encourage their children to pursue careers in medicine, their two sons are doctors. The third is in the third level of medicine.

Looking back on his life, Butterfield, 75, has fond memories of his career at OMC and the community he built in Rochester.

“It’s been a very positive experience,” he said. “And I think women will be successful in surgery. There’s no reason they can’t.”

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