By Alexandra Becker
Growing up, Jamie Terry watched her mother suffer from a congenital and chronic lung disease that forced her in and out of doctor’s offices and hospitals. Terry, a middle child, remembered being especially struck by the difference her mother’s medical care made—how in the throes of her disease, it was the doctors who healed her and made her whole again.
“In my eyes, every time mommy was sick, she was made better after she went to the doctor,” recalled Terry, who now works as a breast surgeon with Texas Oncology and is an affiliated physician with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center. “I knew early on that I wanted to be that person who gave people back to their loved ones.”
As a senior in high school, Terry wrote an admissions essay about her mother’s illness, describing in detail why she was determined to become a doctor. That compelling essay, together with Terry’s impressive application, helped secure her a spot at Stanford University, where she graduated with honors in 1984.
Terry was already known for being the hardest worker in the room by the time she arrived at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine in Chicago, and that grit has been her guide throughout her medical training and career, where she faced numerous challenges as a minority in her field.
“There were only three African Americans in my class in Chicago, which prided itself on diversity in its business school, but gave little attention to the medical school at the time,” Terry said.
Originally, she had planned to become an OB-GYN, but during her rotation Terry realized that she was especially drawn to the surgical part of the practice—the emergency C-sections, pelvic surgeries and hysterectomies.
“Surgery made my heart sing, and being in the operating room made me want to be better,” Terry said. “I now tell all of my young mentees that the way that you know what specialty to go into is that it’s the one you’re willing to stay up all night reading and learning about—it’s the one that makes you want to be better.”
So Terry altered her course and completed cardiovascular surgery and surgical oncology rotations—the two hardest electives, she said, both of which cemented her decision.
“Completing those rotations made me realize that I am very outcomes oriented,” Terry said. “It was always about what made me willing to work as hard as I knew how. That was why I became a surgeon, because I never minded going that extra mile, and I wanted to fix problems—I wanted outcomes.”
Terry then came to Houston to complete her residency at St. Joseph Medical Center. As a minority woman studying the field of surgery at that time, she dealt with isolation, criticism and scrutiny.
“It’s difficult to function as a young person under the microscope every step of the way,” Terry said. “I was the first Black woman to be accepted to a 5-year categorical surgery residency at the oldest Catholic hospital in the city of Houston, then survived to be one of the last three standing in 1994, along with two men from Texas. I had to become impermeable.”
After finishing her residency, Terry immediately went into private practice, an attempt to take a breath while she built her career. It didn’t take long for her practice to become extremely successful. Her skills were unmatched, and patients began to refer her to friends and family members and neighbors. Living by the mantra, “If you aren’t willing to do it well, don’t do it,” Terry continued her ongoing education, further specializing her skills based on the needs of the community. Eventually, that turned into a practice focused solely on breast surgery, and in 2010, Terry was asked to spearhead the breast surgical initiative at Texas Oncology.
“I think there’s some misconception that passion, success and respect come from showing up, but that isn’t really how it goes,” Terry said. “Showing up is the foundation, but true excellence requires more than just showing up—it’s when you go the extra mile, it’s when you take time to pursue your passion with vengeance, and that requires some introspection.”
Terry is open about how introspection has helped shape her into the person she is today. After residency, she had become aware of the sharp edges she’d honed, a survival mechanism for reaching her ambitious goals. She credits her now-husband for softening her edges, and for helping her understand that she could be the person she wanted to be as well as a commanding surgeon.
“I got to the point where, personally, it wasn’t good enough just to be a good doctor and a good surgeon. I wanted to be a better person,” Terry recalled, adding that she felt the same way years later, after her twin boys were born. “If you remain impermeable, then you also never get to absorb the beauty and the joy in life. I was letting what I was doing become who I was, and that simply is not true.”
When her twins were 15 months old, she made the decision to reduce her hours and practice part-time.
“I wanted to approach parenting with the same excellence that I had achieved as a physician surgeon,” Terry said. “Because, unlike being a physician surgeon, these two children did not ask to be born—and I got one shot at laying a foundation with them.”
It’s a decision she hasn’t regretted.
“I think part of my success can be attributed to this re-centering and recalibrating of myself—this reminding myself of who I am and who I want to be,” Terry said. “Having an awareness and a willingness to pause and do that work has made me a better doctor over time, it’s made me a better person, a better wife and a better mother. Life is going to force change, and if you don’t accept the fact that you’re going to have to change, it will break you. Life will break you because you’ve got to choose happiness, and you’ve got to be willing to go with your gut.”