We had the pleasure to meet Katherine (Katy) Gast for a short interview in one of her last weeks in Ghent where she was about to finish her fellowship in plastic surgery at UZ Gent. Katy had received a Stephen S. Kroll Scholarship for 2016 with the support of the Beautiful After Breast Cancer Foundation, allowing her to complete this fellowship with success.
We were very curious to learn about her experience, her key learnings, her impressions and takeaways going back home, her feelings about the Beautiful After Breast Cancer Foundation and her love for our country and culture.
It ended up being a very pleasant encounter.
Her background. Katy is married to a neurologist and mother of two little girls, 18 months and 4year old respectively. Her family followed her to Ghent for this great opportunity, where they arrived late September. She grew up in Michigan in the United States where she studied medicine at the University of Michigan after obtaining a degree in biochemistry and cello at the Columbia University in New York. She is now 34 years old and just finished her medical training in Michigan prior to arriving in Ghent. Katy indicated that it typically takes 4 years of (general) medical school and another 7 years of specialization in plastic surgery to become a plastic surgeon in the US.
We asked her why she was interested in plastic surgery so much, why she wanted to become a plastic surgeon. From a very young age she knew that she wanted to become a surgeon as she was attracted by the interplay of hands and the feeling of accomplishment helping patients that way. The reason why she became a plastic surgeon was mostly driven by the feeling of helping patients to restore their self-confidence after trauma or cancer and to ‘rebuild’ their life. That is mainly also the reason why she is now focusing on reconstructive surgery rather than esthetic surgery.
Why did she apply for a fellowship at UZ Gent? She sees this training at UZ Gent as the ideal finishing touch of her overall training as a reconstructive plastic surgeon. She wanted to become more experienced in autologous breast reconstruction and as Prof. Dr. Blondeel is world renowned for DIEAP flap reconstruction and she had seen the amazing and natural looking results of the reconstructions performed by the team at UZ Gent, she aspired to become a fellow here. She had the opportunity to visit the team at UZ Gent with her mentor two years ago during a short one week stay and was since then very much impressed and eager to come back for a full 6 months fellowship. Through this fellowship she was able to enhance her expertise significantly and is now looking forward to take that expertise back home to further perform this type of reconstructive surgery and train others to develop the same skills. Katy added that the team in Gent excels in paying attention to the smallest detail and gave the example of the belly button and nipple reconstruction that are carefully considered and performed as well.
Are there differences between breast surgery in the US versus Europe (Gent)? Overall reconstructive surgery techniques that are applied in the US are very similar to what she has seen in Europe (Ghent), however it is the way the surgery is performed in UZ Gent that differs from what she previously had experienced in the US. For instance, there is the attention to detail in the performance of the surgery, including belly button and nipple reconstruction (as explained above). Also the expertise of the operation staff, including nurses, and the way they interact with the surgeons during the operation are truly exceptional.
In addition, she had the opportunity to assist to operations where the ‘love handle’ area of the back was used for patients that had inadequate abdominal tissue for breast reconstruction, which is a technique that she believes is currently not performed in the Unites States. Katy is also of the opinion that hospitals (at least in Ghent) are also very much looking into cost efficiencies, for example in the way they handle waste, and there is in general less involvement of the pharma industry than what she previously could experience in the US.
How did she learn about the Beautiful After Breast Cancer Foundation, She first learned about BABC through the scholarship and is very grateful for this organization to have supported and enabled her to complete a fellowship at UZ Gent. Without the financial support of the Beautiful After Breast Cancer foundation she would never have been able to start this fellowship.
Does she see an added value of BABC to support breast cancer patients throughout their journey? She sees a significant benefit in empowering patients and allowing patients to make ‘informed’ decisions based on complete and objective information about treatment and breast reconstruction techniques. There is no such thing as ‘too much’ information for patients and what she particularly likes is the fact that the Beautiful After Breast Cancer foundation allows patients to understand they have options and to actually ‘see’ the different options that they have. Ultimately the patient feels more involved in and more in ‘control’ of the decision making process about treatment and surgery.
In the consultations that she has done with patients, there were patients that came for a second or third opinion and that already have significant information available, however there are also patients that were just diagnosed and for which the Beautiful After Breast Cancer foundation can make a real difference in supporting these patients and addressing their specific needs for information, often not medical in nature but rather related to their emotional or physical well-being, in order to enhance their well-being and help to build their confidence in the treatments and surgery to come.
What are Katy’s plans going back home? Kathy has a position as a reconstructive plastic surgeon at the University of Wisconsin. In addition, she will be teaching residents in reconstructive surgery and will be actively involved in medical research. This fellowship provided her with the required expertise and know-how to bring this to a success.
What did she like about Belgium? She loved the architecture, the history and cycling here. She actually commuted to hospital by bike every day and even bought a real ‘bakfiets’ as we know them most probably only in some cities in Europe, like Ghent. She is determined to take that bike back home with her and start a real trend there! In addition, she loved the warm atmosphere in UZ Gent and in Belgium in general. And, she absolutely loved our beer! Actually you might not believe this, but she is an expert in brewing her own beer, which seems to be quite common in the United States. Her degree in biochemistry most probably helps her out quite well here. In any event, she and her family are determined to come back to Belgium soon.
She indicated that she wanted to keep in touch, especially also about the activities of BABC, which we will certainly do!!
We wish you all the best Katy!