A conversation with MUSC Health’s new colorectal surgeon Colleen Donahue

Dr. Donahue stands in a white coat in the lobby of the psychiatry department at MUSC Health

Growing up on the beach in New England has Colleen Donahue, M.D., feeling right at home in Charleston. She remembers her grandmother’s beach house in Salisbury, Massachusetts, fondly, and she looks forward to creating new memories here. She attended medical school at Tufts University School of Medicine and completed a general surgery residency at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Massachusetts before heading down South. As MUSC Health’s new colorectal surgeon, Donahue aims to put patients at ease when discussing difficult topics and to work with residents on their minimally invasive and robotic surgery training.

Progressnotes sits down with Donahue for the summer issue to discuss her experience at MUSC and to learn a little bit about how she spends her time outside of work. 

So, what brought you to MUSC? 

I’m originally from the Boston area and did my fellowship out in Chicago, and I always kind of assumed I’d end up back in Boston. But when I was looking for jobs, I really wanted an academic center where I’d be working with residents and could get involved in education, and there aren’t a lot of centers like that. And with MUSC’s well-respected colorectal program, I thought the job opportunity was worth investigating. I wanted to be part of a supportive group of colorectal surgeons I could learn from and that I fit well with. The first five years in practice are when you’re supposed to be learning  the most, and the team here has proved to be incredibly helpful and vital to me in this position. I’m so glad I found this group to work with. 

Could you tell me a little bit about what you do as a colorectal surgeon? 

We cover a broad range of things, which I really enjoy. I’ll handle procedures for colon cancer and rectal cancer but also more benign things like diverticulitis, rectal prolapse surgery or hemorrhoids. It’s a little bit of everything.  

Do you find that surgery, and specifically colorectal surgery, is still a male-dominated field?

I think surgery in general has an issue of balance between men and women, but I think it has been improving, especially if you look at training programs. The numbers in practice are still lagging, but I’m hoping they’ll catch up soon to reflect a more even ratio. As the only female colorectal surgeon on this team, I find there are a certain percentage of patients who would rather discuss sensitive topics like hemorrhoids, fistulas or pelvic floor disorders with a female physician, and I’m so glad I can help provide that option. I try to make the conversation very casual, get people talking. A lot of people have the same issues, but no one wants to talk about it.

What was something that helped you to feel more confident breaking into a male-dominated field?

Having a female mentor was immensely helpful. And at least in the colorectal field, the society has been fantastic about creating mentorship between women, which is helpful when you don’t have any direct female mentorship at your job. Having a place where you can reach out to people for advice and hear from someone who’s done it before is such a great thing.

What subspecialties of colorectal surgery are you most interested in?

I particularly love the area of rectal cancer – it’s an ever-changing field. Treatment has changed dramatically even since I started my training six or seven years ago, as we’re working our way toward more organ preservation. We’re learning more and more ways to prevent patients from needing to undergo massive, life-altering surgery. The surgery itself in rectal cancer is interesting and extremely intricate. It’s different from other surgeries I do, and I just enjoy that particular dissection. I enjoy treating those patients as well, as they become lifelong patients, and I love the bond that comes with that.

What would you say you’re most looking forward to now that you’re at MUSC?

The part that I’m most excited about is the mentorship with the colorectal partners here. I feel very comfortable asking them questions, and I consider them friends as well as partners. And then even outside of that, the reason I wanted to be here at an academic institution was because of the other opportunities that come with it, things I didn’t even realize were an option in the first place. For instance, I’m taking over all the simulation for the residents. I’m working with the robot curriculum, the laparoscopic skills curriculum. I get to see how things are fun here as I try to figure out what I can bring to the program that the residents may not have seen before. And not to mention all of the research opportunities!

What are some ways the field has changed over the years?

I think we’ve moved much more toward minimally invasive surgeries. We can do so much through very small incisions laparoscopically – the advancement in technology is really phenomenal. We’re able to find more and more ways to spare people massive surgery, which is really what people want even, if that means we’re performing fewer procedures.

What are some ways you like to spend your free time outside of work?

I love going to the beach! Being from New England, I grew up on the beach, and I love having that familiarity down here. I also love to run, even though I’d say I’m not good at it. I’m extremely slow, but it’s my way to kind of decompress at the end of the day. If I can just get out there for 30 to 45 minutes, my thoughts feel a lot more organized. Hollings Cancer Center is also involved in the Dragon Boat Festival at Brittlebank Park, and I’d love to get involved in that in the future.