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Orthopedic surgeon making a contribution to history as a woman in a male-dominated field

In honor of Women’s History Month, Center Times Plus profiles Sharon Walton, M.D., Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery and one of only seven African American female fellowship-trained orthopedic specialists in the nation as of 2022, according to the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons. We applaud Dr. Walton as a trend-setter in her field and for being a role model to young girls considering a specialty that in the past had been dominated by white males.

In the city of Compton, California, notorious for its high poverty and crime rates, many kids dream of getting out by becoming millionaire NBA players or rap stars, said Sharon Walton, M.D., Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery. In the 1990s, 12-year-old Sharon had a different dream.

“My gymnastics team doctor was an orthopedic surgeon who was an African American female from my neighborhood,” recalled Dr. Walton. “When I met her, I thought she was the coolest thing.

“Dr. Andersen was also the team doctor for the Laker Girls. She would take me with her and allow me to shadow her. I thought the world of her. She was a Black female from the same neighborhood as I was from, and I thought she was a superwoman.”

Both her parents and Dr. Sheila Andersen were key influences in her eventually becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

Determination and purpose

Dr. Walton said she loved academics from an early age, especially math and science, so she had the skills – both the intelligence and emotional strength – to pursue her dream of becoming a physician.

She tested into Marymount High School in Beverly Hills, which was a significant commute from her home, but her determination to become a physician made it worth the extra effort.

For her undergraduate education, Dr. Walton attended Columbia University in New York City. In an offbeat fulfillment of the typical Compton-youth dream, she performed at Madison Square Garden during New York Knicks games as a member of the Knicks City Dancers for all four years of her undergraduate education.

Medical school and residency were at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She completed her fellowship at New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases and Reconstructive Surgery in 2015.

She joined the UT Southwestern faculty five years ago, specializing in hip and knee replacements. Dr. Walton said she came to UTSW because she wanted to be part of an academic environment and also wished to interact with medical students and residents.

A champion for diversity

As an African American woman, Dr. Walton is helping to expand diversity in her field. According to an American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons survey, just 6.5% of orthopedic surgeons are women, and only a small percentage of those are Black women.

Dr. Walton said that “boys’ club” attitude is changing, though. In 2018-2019, 15% of orthopedic surgery trainees were women.

“It’s been difficult, but luckily I have had some great mentors of all genders and races,” she said. “I tell students who want to go into orthopedic surgery that you really do have to be the type of person that if there is no one to be your support, you can find that support within yourself. I’ve always been able to be my own cheerleader.”

Dr. Waltson consults with a patient during an office visit.

Dr. Waltson consults with a patient during an office visit.

For anyone, Dr. Walton said, orthopedic surgery is a challenging specialty. “I want to emphasize the difficulty in being an orthopedic surgeon, both physically and mentally. You sacrifice a lot, no matter your race or gender. But there are some things that are a little bit different for certain people because they don’t have the typical look of the group. That’s just the truth whether people want to admit it or not.”

She applauds UT Southwestern for understanding that the field of medicine in general needs diversity. “Overall, orthopedic surgery is really changing. Obviously, it has a place in my heart when I see so many women interested in orthopedic surgery.”

And she has a special message for women considering becoming orthopedic surgeons: “Certainly, it is a physical occupation, but it’s not about strength; it’s about technique. You don’t have to go into the gym and bench press 200 pounds to do orthopedic surgery. You just have to know the proper techniques.”

Dr. Walton said the favorite part of her job is mentoring medical students and residents. She wants to be the kind of inspiration to trainees today that Dr. Andersen was to her so many years ago.