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Despite her leadership roles at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Dr. Kristen Zarfos wants to make sure she is recognized for her “day job.”
“I really want to be clear that I am a surgeon, a general surgeon with a specialty in breast care and cancer care,” Zarfos said. “I don’t want that to be overlooked because if we’re looking at women in minority situations who have been able to create careers, I think it’s a good example. It’s important to say that there are opportunities.”
Being a role model comes naturally to Zarfos, who has spent her career advocating for women both as patients and medical professionals. Medical director of the Karl J. Krapek Sr. Comprehensive Women’s Health Center at St. Francis, Zarfos said her experiences have shaped her leadership.
“I want to be able to fix things for the patients but also help them through the process,” Zarfos said. “That’s a recurrent theme in my career.”
A native of western Maryland, Zarfos was inspired to become a surgeon by the holistic approach to medicine she saw while training at an urban Baltimore hospital with surgeons from Johns Hopkins University.
“Hopkins was ahead of its time; they wanted to not just operate but take care of the whole patient,” Zarfos said.
Zarfos took that approach to patient care into practice as a general surgeon in the late 1980s and then to a faculty position at the University of Connecticut Medical School in 1989. By the late 1990s, she had emerged as an outspoken advocate against the then-common practice of “drive-through” mastectomies, in which women were sent home within 23 hours of the major surgery. Her efforts to extend inpatient care were singled out for mention in President Bill Clinton’s 1997 State of the Union address.
By 2005, Zarfos was the top choice to lead the breast center at St. Francis and she was instrumental in reorganizing services to create the comprehensive women’s health center in 2013. Her own bout with colon cancer in 2006 and her work with hundreds of cancer patients over the decades have informed the process.
“Women have taught me how to better help the next women cope, but they’ve also told me what’s important in their overall health,” Zarfos said. Key to that health, she has found, is a coordinated effort to address a range of issues at each visit and swift access to specialists.
In a recent case, a woman came into St. Francis’ emergency room with breast issues, but also told staff that every woman in her immediate family had died of heart disease in their 40s. She was immediately referred to the hospital’s women’s cardiac program and was able to access care within days.
“This is about helping women identify that they might need to be evaluated, and then facilitating that happening in a timely fashion,” Zarfos said.
Zarfos’ experience as both a surgeon and cancer patient has helped shape a management style that relies on both information gathering and empathy.
“I want to impart to the people that work with me that the number one goal is treating people the way we want to be treated,” Zarfos said. “That’s my style — I really need to walk in everybody’s shoes to help them fit better.”
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