OhioHealth's groundbreaking neurosurgeon says goodbye.

Dr. Janet Bay, the godmother of the neuroscience program at OhioHealth, will retire at the end of May. As OhioHealth’s system vice president for neuroscience, Bay has served as a guiding force in the organization’s neuroscience growth, including the $321 million OhioHealth Neuroscience Center (which opened in 2015) and the recently announced $12.1 million neurological wellness and fitness center (which is expected to open in 2019). “We have patients from all over the place, and I think that’s because she has really put us on the map,” says Dr. Rebecca Brightman, an OhioHealth neurosurgeon and a protégé of Bay’s.

What’s more, Bay stands out as a female pioneer in a male-dominated field (she was the 13th female neurosurgeon in the country) and as a good-humored, down-to-earth counterpoint to stereotype of the prima donna neurosurgeon. “She’s always been a friend to me,” Brightman says. “Her office is right next to mine, and I can talk to her about anything, at any time." Adds Brightman, “She’s been an amazing example to me. I’ll miss her dearly.”

Columbus CEO recently sat down with Bay to talk about her extraordinary four-decade career.

Do you come from a family of doctors?

No, no. I come from a working-class family. My father was a factory foreman, and my mother was a banquet waitress. My father didn’t even like doctors that much, to be honest with you. He really wanted me to be an educator. His father was a teacher, and he really revered teachers. Doctors—not so much. But he got over it.

How did you get interested in medicine?

I went to Buckeye Valley High School, which is a rural high school in Delaware County. I got the opportunity to be a candy striper, a volunteer, at what is now OhioHealth Grady Hospital. At that time it was called Jane Case. And in those days, the candy stripers, which was the ’60s, could do bed baths, feed patients, make their beds, walk them. Now the volunteers can open mail and deliver flowers. They don’t have any direct patient care because of the liabilities. But I really got to get into the hospital life, and I really liked hospitals. Some people, their skin crawls when they walk into a hospital. I just felt immediately at home.

What did you like about it?

I guess I’m kind of a know-it-all, but I liked being in a situation where I not only could help people, but I knew more than most of the people around. What’s really funny, when I went to my guidance counselor in high school and I said, “I really feel at home in the hospital. I want to do something in healthcare,” he said, “You would make an excellent nurse.” And I said, “I will make an excellent doctor.”

I understand you were one of the first neurosurgeons in the country.

I was the 13th. I was board certified in 1980. I was on the staff of the Cleveland Clinic, and I took my boards in New Orleans and passed and came home. I called the American Board of Neurological Surgeons, which was in Chicago. I said, “Hi, this is Dr. Janet Bay. I just passed my neurosurgical boards. I want to know how many women are board-certified.” [The receptionist] didn’t even have to look it up. She said, “You are the 13th.”

She had a running total?

Yeah, that always amazed me, to this very day. I hope she was accurate, and I think she probably was.

You studied at Ohio State?

I went to Ohio State Medical School. I worked with a female neurosurgeon [Dr. Carole Miller]. It didn’t seem that odd. I really didn’t know until I started applying, and the places I applied to would be like, “We’ve never had a woman here. I don’t think we ever will.” This was back in the day when people would say things like that. Now they’d get some kind of HR violation, but in those days that was not the case. 

Then I transferred to the [Cleveland] Clinic midway through my residency. When I went up there for my interview, the gentleman who became my mentor, who was the head of the program at that time, he was taking me around and introducing me to people, and one of the people he introduced me to was one of the sort of fathers of neurosurgery. He was W. James Gardner, and he started the neurosurgical program at the Clinic in the ’20s. And he was sitting there, he was an emeritus faculty. He had a little office. He didn’t do much. He’d just come in and just be a presence. And he had the little teeny glasses on his nose and was baldheaded, and he was like 80. And when Dr. Doan  introduced me, he said, “Dr. Gardner, this is Dr. Bay. She wants to be a neurosurgeon.” He looked up over his glasses and said, “You ought to have your head examined.”

Did you face a lot of resistance from other folks in the field?

No, I did not. I have told many people that surgery is a meritocracy. Getting into it is not easy. But once you are in the path, if you can perform well, you are very well accepted. I finished my training there. I stayed on the staff. I came here largely because I had family in this area. I came to Riverside before there was OhioHealth, and there was no entity of OhioHealth. And I’ve been the president of the medical staff here, I’ve obviously got an administrative position. So I can honestly say I’ve never felt discriminated against whatsoever.

Is it still unusual to find women in neurosurgery today? How have things changed?

There are probably nationally in neurosurgery, out of a workforce of maybe four or five thousand, probably 300 women now. So it’s much more common, but still it’s not by any means over-represented. But that also reminds me of a funny anecdote. When I was at the Clinic, it was enough of a novelty that a news station did a little [story], put me on the news. And they followed me around. Anyway, the reporter asked me, “Are there any advantages to being a woman in neurosurgery?” and I said, “Really the only advantage I can think of is shorter lines at the ladies’ room at our national meetings.” He did not use that, but I thought it was funny.

Did a patient ever say, ‘I’m sorry, but I want a man to do my surgery?”

I’m sure there are people that self-selected, who saw a woman and thought “I’m not going to that person.” But I never had anyone who saw me who said, “I would prefer to have someone else.” But I’m sure there were some people that just never made that first appointment, which is okay.

And many of my patients told me, “I figured a woman would have to be twice as good to be able to do this, so I picked you.” I don’t really think that’s true, but there are certain barriers that we talked about that you would have to jump over.

Probably the other thing that I should be proud of is, when I started neurosurgery my parents weren’t discouraging, but many of my friends were. They said, “If you go into neurosurgery it’s going to ruin your personality. You have a good sense of humor, you’re a caring person, and you’ll become cynical and jaded, and it’ll ruin you.” And it hasn’t. So I’m proud of that.

Have you thought about what you’re going to do next ?

I thought of many thoughts. I feel to some degree like a student who’s getting out of school for the summer. They’re very happy. They don’t know exactly what they’re going to do the whole [time]. But I plan to volunteer. I will continue to do philanthropic efforts on behalf of the wellness center. I may want to become like a docent at the zoo. I really like animals. I’ll probably do some volunteer work at my church. And they’re already hitting me up to staff some free clinics. They need neurological help, and so I may do that.

A shorter version of this story appeared in the May 2018 issue of Columbus CEO.