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Family Medicine: A Daughter Follows in the Footsteps of Her Dad

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Astronauts, CEOs, ballerinas. What do little girls dream of being when they grow up? Anything they want to be. 

Except in a field like medicine. Yes, there are a lot of female doctors. But there aren’t many who are orthopedists or surgeons. Which is why there are few female orthopedic surgeons. 

So when Dr. Meredith Osterman set her sights on exactly that, her success was hardly a given. Nonetheless, she is the daughter of Dr. A. Lee Osterman, one of the world’s most respected hand surgeons. President of the Crozer-Keystone/Philadelphia Hand Center, a 15-surgeon consortium, Lee is a longtime professor at Thomas Jefferson Medical College and has lectured at universities in more than 180 countries. He literally wrote the book on hand surgery. The texts he has authored are used in medical schools around the world.

Interestingly, Lee never so much as nudged his daughter into his field. “Practicing medicine is a gift, and I love what I do,” he says. “But my wife and I are pretty nondirective. We want our kids to be passionate about what they do, and do it to the best of their abilities. If Meredith had wanted to be an oboist, I’d say, ‘Fine. Just be the best oboist you can.’”

If such a laissez-faire approach is unexpected from a high-powered physician, well, Lee doesn’t see himself as one. When asked about his path to becoming an orthopedic surgeon, he begins by talking about photography. That was his first love, and it was his major at Yale University. Such was Lee’s skill that he won a Guggenheim fellowship, traveling through Europe to photograph original stained glass. Then it was on to Tanzania for a project that captured native tribal life. 

This was back in the late 1960s, and Lee was exploring the world. What he saw was beauty—much of it created by human hands. That led him to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and a specialty in orthopedic surgery. 

“A lot of things we do in art and music—not to mention photography—require the hands,” he says. “They’re vehicles for our creativity and communication.” 

Photographs of hands and other artwork line the walls of the Ostermans’ Villanova home. Meredith says they made up the décor of her childhood. The medicine-as-art influence isn’t solely from Meredith’s dad. Her mother, a nurse practitioner, is a long-standing member of the committee that produces the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. 

And, yes, if she had wanted to pursue a nonmedical career, Meredith believes her parents would have supported her. But medicine fascinated her. While in medical school at George Washington University, she began to learn about orthopedics—really learn it, on her own. “As I was exposed to it more, I realized it was the penultimate way of understanding how the body functions—especially with sports,” she says. “Then I found surgery, and loved it the minute I was exposed to it.”

Dr. Meredith Osterman and her father, Dr. A. Lee Osterman//photography by tessa marie images

The Ostermans in action at Crozer-Keystone Surgery Center

What it would mean for Meredith Osterman to follow in her dad’s footsteps wasn’t immediately clear. Sharing his name could work for her or against her. In truth, she was hoping it would have no impact at all.

Meredith wanted to land a spot in the best residency program and train with the best hand surgeons in the country. That meant being at Jefferson and working at the Philadelphia Hand Center. 

“Of course, everyone knew who I was right off the bat,” she says. “But I’d say the person who put the most pressure on me was me.”

Meredith says she wanted to “erase any inkling of nepotism and prove that I’d accomplished things on my own and that I deserved to be there—and not just because I was Lee Osterman’s daughter.” 

That was just fine with her father. “I didn’t make any phone calls for Meredith or give her any help at all,” he says. “Did my colleagues treat her differently? If they did, it wasn’t to her advantage. They didn’t cut her any slack. On the contrary, I think they expected more of her.”

Upon completion of her training, Meredith fielded offers to join several prestigious practices. “One of the greatest compliments I got was that I never rested on my laurels. I was independent of my last name.” 

That’s why she was comfortable joining the best practice she knew: her father’s. In 2014, Meredith became an official member of the Crozer-Keystone/Philadelphia Hand Center Partnership. The Ostermans perform their surgeries in adjoining operating rooms at the practice’s various locations, including the Crozer-Keystone Surgery Centers at Haverford and Brinton Lake in Glen Mills.

What’s it like working together? Both Ostermans describe it as sort of a hybrid parent-child/physician-physician relationship. “Hand surgeons have different ways of doing things that, generally speaking, are more conservative or less conservative,” says Lee. “Meredith’s background is more conservative and favors fusions over joint replacements. Mine is the opposite. We agree to disagree.”

Meredith concurs. “We have different ways of working as physicians and surgeons,” she says. “For example, we often sit while we do surgery. At one point, I decided it was easier for me to stand, so I did. He kept telling me to sit. He finally said, ‘It’s like when I was teaching you to drive!’ It was that level of frustration. But, of course, I didn’t sit.”

There’s little sitting even when Meredith isn’t working. She’s a wife and a mother to two small children. Her father is as proud of her family life as he is of her career, and he certainly recognizes the challenges Meredith faces in juggling those roles. “Surgeons have a more difficult time—and so do women,” he says. “But Meredith has been on target about how to balance that.” 

Then Lee turns more philosophical.

“Gloria Steinem said that you can have it all, and I think that’s been proven not to be so easy,” he says. “What thrills me is the joy Meredith has in her children and in her work. She’s happy. What more could I want for her?”

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