Dr. Marci Bowers is considered an innovator and pioneer in the medical field. She is the first trans woman to perform gender reassignment surgery, and is a leading doctor who has performed 50 surgeries on victims of FGM in the US. To date, it is estimated that over 500,000 girls have been subjected to or are at risk of FGM in the US, and over 200 million girls have undergone this procedure worldwide. Located in San Mateo, California, Dr. Bowers continues to improve the lives of those who have undergone this horrific procedure through her performance of corrective surgery in the US.
AHA: When and why did you decide to focus your career on offering reconstructive surgery for FGM victims? What drives you?
Dr. Bowers: I became interested in FGM during residency when I cared for a patient who had been infibulated. I was concerned about her well being not just from an obstetrical standpoint but also from a woman’s standpoint in being able to feel anything or enjoy sex in any way. It seemed implausible to me to say that she did not care or that we should just blow off her feelings or desires as something that was ‘cultural,’ ‘none of our business’ and to just say ‘don’t worry about it.’ When I was contacted by Nadine Gary, director or Clitoraid, I responded affirmatively without a second of hesitation. I knew it was my calling. I learned later that so many had turned down her request. I think what motivates me most is the fact that I have cared for the underserved and marginalized throughout my career. I see those most in need where others look past the individuals as inconvenient. When I am stuck in traffic, I see the beauty of the emerald green moss growing between the segments of pavement—I guess that is odd but it is me.
AHA: What’s the biggest problem or hurdle you face when working with a girl who is considering reconstructive surgery?
Dr. Bowers: Many successful surgeons improve because they are insecure in some way—as am I. My feeling about surgery is that it should be 100% wonderful 100% of the time and that ideal is simply unattainable. So I keep trying to be better. Patients come from so many unique circumstances, so many different physical considerations, so many psychological overlays, it is like a computer analysis each time. But the underlying principle in surgery is art. Surgery should always be an artistic endeavor. In that setting, surgery can nearly always be successful. The challenge is to offer that but in a way that is sensitive to the culture, the individuality, the complexity of family relationships and personal qualities, fears and motivations that each patient brings to her consideration of surgery seeking a basic human right and part of her body that was taken from her by people she loved and trusted.
AHA: If you were advising other doctors/ service professionals how to help girls who have undergone FGM, how would you advise them to approach the issue?
Dr. Bowers: I see myself similar to how Dr. Foldes (a French doctor who specializes in clitoral reconstruction) sees himself— we are just cogs in a medical system that is supposed to care for people, nothing more, nothing less. There is no judgment, no self-glory, nothing but pure empathy for the needs of the woman involved.
AHA: One major hurdle we face at the AHA Foundation is explaining that FGM does indeed happen in the US. As someone who works directly with victims of FGM, what can you say in regard to its prevalence in the US?
Dr. Bowers: Cultural traditions die very hard. There is concern for US girls but it pales to that which is happening globally. The biggest risk here in the US is immigrant children visiting relatives in home countries where FGM is practiced and being subject to ‘vacation cutting.’ That is where our prevention efforts in the US need to be. There was a recent US case but that cutter is being prosecuted. There are laws and expectations here.
AHA: Can FGM be eradicated in the US, and what do you think it would take to make it a reality?
Dr. Bowers: If it happens, it needs to be exposed and prosecuted, if need be. FGM benefits no one. Women are not happy with its consequences. Men are not happy with its consequences. The truth here is known and civil rights for women, as imperfect as they may be, are better than in countries where education and information are lacking.
Dr. Marci Bowers was born in Chicago suburbs, was raised in southern Wisconsin, attended college at UW-Madison, medical school at University of Minneapolis-Minnesota, did her residency in ob/gyn at University of Washington in Seattle after which she continued into practice locally in Seattle. She practiced at the Polyclinic for 12 years, before she moved to Trinidad Colorado in 2003 to perform transgender surgery. This reconstructive surgical work facilitated the connection with Clitoraid, who contacted her in 2007 to study with Dr. Pierre Foldes in Paris in order to learn clitoral restoration surgery. She moved in 2010 to San Francisco Bay Area where she is primarily located today.