A transformative moment during a high school trip to Mexico forever changed Dr. Rachel A. Ruotolo’s dream of becoming a professional ballerina. Seeing poverty first-hand, she refocused the discipline and drive she’d learned from dance toward a new dream of making a difference in people’s lives. Now, this mother of three has helped numerous patients and their families as a craniofacial plastic surgeon.
Dr. Ruotolo helps correct birth defects in children and provides support for parents dealing with the complex emotions that come with learning their child has an abnormality. She also helps educate and advocate through her work with Child Abuse Prevention Services to help reduce the stigma surrounding birth defects.
We asked Dr. Ruotolo to share some of the highlights and challenges of being both a surgeon and a mom. We loved hearing how she counters mom guilt by being present and spending quality one-on-one time with each of her children — not to mention the strong career example she’s setting for her three daughters.
Read on for her perspective on working as a female in a male-dominated field, how she handles operating on children the same age as her own, and the unique (and delicious) way she rewards herself at the end of each day.
Name: Rachel A. Ruotolo, MD, FACS, Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon, Vice President and Partner, Long Island Plastic Surgical Group, PC
Education: George Washington School of Medicine, Washington D.C. – Doctor of Medicine with Distinction
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina – Bachelor of Science Cum Laude
Location: Long Island, NY
Children: Ages 7, 5, and 3
What was your first job and how did you land it?
My first job as a medical professional was at a small private plastic surgery practice on Long Island. After extensive outreach, I was recruited out of fellowship to be the cleft and craniofacial specialist in that practice.
I had a myriad of waitressing, hosting, and clerical positions throughout high school and college, at various small businesses. Before starting medical school, I worked in a basic science lab at Duke.
Did you always imagine you’d be a doctor or in medicine? How did your career path develop?
Dance was my life before I embarked on the road to becoming a craniofacial surgeon — most people from my childhood still think of me as a ballerina. I credit my intense ballet schedule with giving me the discipline and focus that I would later need in my surgical training. I would go to school, come home and do my homework, go to ballet for 3-4 hours, and then do more studying usually until after midnight. I spent my summers in intensive ballet camps. This left very little time for anything else.
My intention was always to become a professional ballet dancer, until a transformative moment that changed my life course forever. My father and I went to Mexico after my spring performance season my senior year in high school. I had applied and was accepted to Duke University, but had no intention of going — until this trip. My father always felt it was important to expose us to different cultures and experiences so that we could see how blessed we were to live in this amazing country. During this trip, I witnessed poverty and destitution that I had never seen before. It was at that pivotal moment that I decided that I wanted to do more with my life. I wanted and needed to give back. We flew back home to New York and I never danced again. I left that summer for Duke to embark on my life’s journey and calling and have never looked back.
How did you decide on plastic surgery?
The moment I decided that I was not going to pursue my professional ballet career, I knew that I wanted to be a surgeon. At first, I thought I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon so that I could treat dancers and athletes with their injuries. However, as I went through my medical school rotations and was directly exposed to other surgical specialties, it was plastic surgery that resonated most with me. I was fascinated and challenged by the intricacy of the surgeries. I loved the fact that we operate from head to toe and that it is one of the only surgical specialties where we operate on patients of every age — from infancy to the elderly. As I advanced through my plastic surgery residency at Penn, I further refined my interest and passion. I paid attention to which cases excited and challenged me most, and which patients I most enjoyed taking care of, and that’s how I ended up becoming a craniofacial surgeon.
I imagine it must be difficult to be a mother and operate on young children – what’s that experience like for you?
It’s not difficult, but my perspective certainly changed a bit once I became a mother, especially when operating on children that are at the same age as my own children. Ultimately, I have to separate my thoughts, compartmentalize, and focus on the task at hand.
What are some of your favorite parts of your job? Some parts are that more difficult?
The best part of my job is the difference it can make in people’s lives. Congenital deformities and trauma cases aren’t situations that are ever planned, and it can be emotionally wrenching for patients and their families. What’s amazing about craniofacial surgery is that I am able to specifically and immediately make a difference and help the patient. Right after an operation, the difference is visible right away, whereas sometimes in other areas of medicine results aren’t as immediate. Craniofacial surgery is an objective, fairly predictable way to help people.
The most difficult part of my job is when my patients are teased, and when pregnant mothers carry guilt about their unborn child’s cleft diagnosis. I feel the emotional challenges that the child and the parent go through in these situations. I do my best to help them deal with their anxiety, guilt, and fear by putting them in touch with other parents and providing emotional support. I also help by being approachable and making myself very accessible to my patients and their families via email and cell phone.
What’s your experience been like working in a male-dominated field, both before and after becoming a mother?
I honestly have never seen myself as a woman in medicine or a female surgeon — I simply see myself as a surgeon.
In my field, I am mostly working with male physicians. Starting with my residency in 1999, until now, nearly 20 years later, I never felt that I was treated differently as a woman in a male-dominated field.
You work mostly with children who are born with birth defects and serve on the board of Child Abuse Prevention Services in Long Island. Can you tell us about your work and passion with them and what you’re doing to reduce the stigma surrounding birth defects?
Child Abuse Prevention Service group is doing an amazing job with addressing bullying in the elementary, middle, and high schools.
The greatest contribution I can give to reduce the stigma is to make children look like they don’t have the defect. I give them emotional support and confidence so that the birth defect itself does not define them. So, for example, instead of thinking of themselves as a cleft child, they can think of themselves as a 7-year-old little girl or boy!
I take every opportunity to speak about cleft lip and palate and how common it is in our surrounding community. It’s my goal to raise awareness and educate families. There are still pre-conceived misconceptions about why these anomalies happen and to whom.
To have a child with birth defects can be certainly an adjustment of expectations – what advice do you have for parents navigating this situation?
No one is prepared to have a child with a birth defect. Education and support are what helps families the most. I put parents in touch with other mothers and fathers who have had the same type of experience. Sometimes new moms feel like they might have trouble bonding with their baby, when in reality, I would say that it is extremely rare for this to happen. Mothers just fall in love with them from the moment they are placed in their arms.
How have your skills as a doctor translated to motherhood? Vice versa?
Being impeccable. In surgery, it is obvious why this is important. But it is just as important in motherhood. Being impeccable with my words and actions is critical in my role as a mom.
And with patience. An obvious quality needed as a parent, but equally important as a surgeon/physician. Patience in the operating room and with patients is essential.
How do your kids inspire you, in your career or otherwise?
My kids motivate me to be the best I can be every day. I’m constantly trying to look at the world through their eyes. They wake up every morning excited for the new day ahead and the adventures it holds! They are forever living in the present moment. They inspire me to look at the world this same way. Somehow as we get older, we lose that innocence — that unwavering positivity. It’s so easy to get caught up in work and the business of our everyday and be consumed about thoughts of the future.
I try to be patient, loving, and present when I’m with them. I try not to let things bother me that otherwise would. They’ve challenged me to make myself a better person. I want them to proud of who I am, how I live my life, and how I treat others.
How do you and your husband divide parenting roles? How did having kids change your marriage?
I suppose we have reverse roles if you consider “traditional male/female roles” in a family. I leave the house very early in the morning and come home most often after bedtime. I also often work seven days a week. He does all the food shopping and cooking and gives the kids baths and puts them to bed when I’m not there. He drives them to events, and takes care of the day-to-day. I’m still the parent that my kids go to when they are sad, scared, or just want to cuddle — I love that and pray that that doesn’t change! He and I started dating later in life and started a family very soon after we met. I barely remember our relationship before kids! Parenting together has been the majority of our time together.
What are some of your favorite activities to do with your kids these days?
When I’m with my family I’m mindful to be present — mentally and emotionally. I very much absorb simple, everyday moments that others might take for granted. For me, it’s all about quality versus quantity. I make the most of the precious time I have with them.
I cherish putting my girls to sleep and giving them baths, and I love being there in the morning when they wake up. Between 5am and 6am is our special “mommy time” together. My kids are early risers, which is great, because I leave the house by 6:15.
Each weekend I do special activities with one individual child for a couple of hours. It’s one-on-one time, and they get to choose the activity. For example, my youngest daughter wanted to go to Starbucks last weekend, because she loves their butter popcorn! The weekend before my middle daughter and I worked out together at the gym and then I gave her a bath. This is my favorite time of the week. It gives me a chance to connect with each of them one on one.
How did your view of motherhood change when you had your first? Your second?
There are no words to describe the feeling that you have when you have your first child. That immediate, unconditional love is indescribable. Because of this, I found myself feeling guilty during my second pregnancy. Feeling guilty that I would be somehow taking away from my first by having another child. It was hard to imagine loving someone else like I loved her. That guilt and concern vanished when my second was born. Your heart just becomes bigger. And seeing the love between the two of them each day is reassurance enough that I was adding to her life, not detracting from it.
When it comes to motherhood, what are you most confident in? What are you still insecure about?
I feel confident in the example I am giving them in my career. I am showing my girls that when I am not with them, I am doing something meaningful and rewarding. I love what I do, and they see that. I am giving them an example of how you can have a career that you’re passionate about and how that resonates into your everyday.
I suppose I am most insecure about the time that I miss with them. I am not there for a lot of the day-to-day life and school events. I convince myself that quality is more important than quantity, but it’s always in the back of my mind.
If you have to pick just one, what’s your favorite moment from motherhood so far?
Impossible to answer, but pregnancy, giving birth, nursing, hugs, “mommy, I love you,” cuddles, wiped tears, laughter, holding hands, the innumerable “but why’s” to name just a few.
Dr. Rachel A. Ruotolo is The Everymom…
Last 3 photos on your camera roll?
- 100th day of school photo of my middle daughter dressed up as an old lady, her hair in rollers covered by a handkerchief, with oversized glasses and pearls around her neck.
- My oldest daughter cuddling our dog Duncan, who looks like a golden retriever, but is a rescue (adopted at 4 months, is now 11 years old).
- My three girls in their pajamas, posing and looking all silly for a photo to send their uncle after I showed them a photo of their uncle’s baby.
I wish I knew how to…
Sew on a button (I always have to go to my mom for this)!
Kids song you wish you never had to hear again?
It’s a tie between “Baby Shark” and “Boomerang” from JoJo Siwa.
Last book you read?
I just re-read I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb. Third time. It’s a classic. Never gets old.
Most wild thing your kid said this week?
“Mommy, why is it that every time I turn around, you’re eating cookie dough?”