Review by Kate King-Smith
In 2019, over two years before the publication of her book Emotional Female, Yumiko Kadota wrote a blog post titled ‘The ugly side of becoming a surgeon’. It’s a piece that hurts the moment it begins, with Kadota lamenting that she must ‘surrender…[her] dream of becoming a surgeon.’ Decades of study, work, sleepless nights, bitter compromises and difficult working conditions evaporate before her eyes.
Her exposé, published on both Facebook and her personal blog, prompted Brad Hazzard, the New South Wales Minister for Health, to promise more investigations into the working conditions for trainee doctors. A short time afterwards, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Council (RACS) launched a formal inquest into the conditions at Bankstown Hospital where Kadota worked. They promised to pull trainees from the hospital if her claims were supported by others but, reading Emotional Female, it’s easy to feel that this might have been too little too late.
Emotional Female details Kadota’s journey through medical school and into the wards of various hospitals where she worked for the better part of twelve years. We see her rise through the ranks in her course, earning the favour of her superiors and expressing a palpable excitement about her placements in the wards. However, we also see much of this excitement curdle, and turn sour.
The memoir’s opening scene is an exhausting sequence, in which an overworked Kadota is hounded by phone calls in the few hours she is allocated for sleep. Each phone call is littered with questions which—when framed through Kadota’s exhaustion—seem unnecessary, even asinine. It is difficult to muster enthusiasm for a job that involves decades of study, once the glitter has been scraped off the surface.
Many of the events discussed in her blog post from 2019 are expanded upon throughout the memoir. We are shown the complex dynamics of hospital systems, including the delicate relationships trainee doctors must manage with nurses, registrars and on-call doctors. Departmental disputes mean that surgeries are regularly delayed without doctor input, while some doctors appear to prioritise certain trainees based simply on their sexual appeal. The medical system that Kadota painstakingly portrays is held together like a battleship repaired with salvaged parts—it is an operation fraught with cracks and holes. Kadota’s specialisation in facial aesthetics gives her insight into both the private and public spheres, revealing the private sector’s mundanity and the public system’s disorganisation. In fact, the public system appears to be barely holding on, with constant delays, departmental disputes and distraught families. Kadota is but a tadpole in a large, polluted ocean. Breathing in the toxic waste, she begins to break down.
We know, long before the end, that Yumiko is headed down a one-way street. Despite the overwhelming sense that things are going to get worse however, there are great moments of relief throughout the book. Some of the best sections detail Kadota’s family and the relationships she forms with her fellow trainees, all just as bright and unrelenting as her. The anecdotes with her patients, particularly with Mr B who appeared in her original blog post, give hope to Kadota’s future in the industry as a sparkling light of compassionate care.
These moments, no matter how bright, sadly do not outshine the bitterness with which this book is written. It feels inevitable that Kadota will resign, especially when a 3 a.m. call from a doctor ends with an insult: ‘Stop being an emotional female.’
There’s something to be said about Kadota’s resilience, even when knowingly entering into a field overrun by men with little regard for the young women that aspire to take their places. Young female doctors like Kadota have a tough choice presented to them: either develop thick skin or get out. After decades of study, thousands of dollars poured into tertiary education and the drive to keep going no matter what, what are most young women to do in this position? Many of them continue on with gritted teeth and the terrifying notion that nothing will change.
Though Kadota did eventually leave out of severe sleep deprivation from working 24 straight days in the wards, her career in the medical field did not end here. She now teaches medical students at the University of New South Wales and works part-time as a surgical assistant in the private sector. The turn to teaching is a welcome one, as Kadota’s father reminds her of the joy she took out of teaching first year medical students about anatomy in her final years of university. Kadota is not quite ‘out’ but, in a podcast interview in 2021 by Insight+, she revealed that the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) has yet to respond to her claims of neglect, aside from a mass email sent out after her post went viral to staff and students about available counselling services.
Change, it seems, is a goalpost that is perpetually moved out of reach.
I have a friend who has just started her placement as a third year medical student within the Monash medical school. She is much like Kadota: bright, unwavering in her energy and possessing a will to achieve that I doubt I will ever see in another person again. In a desperate attempt to prepare her for the onslaught, I gave her Emotional Female.
Emotional Female was published by Penguin in 2021 with an RRP of $22.99.
Kate King-Smith is a Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing Masters student with far too much interest in powerful fictional women and video-game fathers. She occasionally publishes in Farrago and Doublejump.co.