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Diana Farmer, M.D. of San Rafael

Along with prestigious pediatricians, the Bay Area is home to Diana Farmer, the world’s first female fetal surgeon and the second American woman to be inducted into the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons of England. A consummate achiever, Farmer decided to go into medicine in the wake of a serious car accident: in 1976, as a marine biology graduate, she was injured while driving cross-country to be interviewed for a Rhodes Scholarship (it was the first year women were included in the running). During her recovery Farmer went back to school and eventually studied to become a pediatric surgeon; earning her degree, she went on to work in top hospitals around the world. In 1998 she moved to the Bay Area to help establish a stand-alone Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, recently named the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. 

Why Marin? My husband Charles “Chico” Cauldwell, M.D., Ph.D., grew up in Marin; he went to Ross Grammar School and was in the first freshman class at Redwood High School. Throughout our marriage and careers we have moved to and from the Bay Area, working in various hospitals, but Marin is home, and we are happy to be settled. We also love the warm weather in San Rafael.

What inspired you to work with fetal patients? It’s an outgrowth of my day job as a pediatric surgeon. From the first time I watched a fetal surgery, I knew I wanted to do it. The surgery is challenging and exciting, but it is wonderful to be able to solve a health problem before a baby is born.

Have politics or religious beliefs hampered your ability to do research? One of the great things about the fetal surgery enterprise at UCSF is we have never gotten involved in the abortion debate. We think of the fetus as a patient and we don’t enter into the discussion of whether the fetus is a person. These surgeries are the family’s decision and are intensely personal. Once the mother decides she wants to keep her pregnancy and go forward with a surgery, we offer that option. Basically, we are here to help families with complex pregnancies. Sometimes we can help and sometimes we can’t.

At what stage is the fetus strong enough to endure surgery? Most fetal surgery takes place at 22 to 26 weeks. Timing depends on what we are doing. Conditions include spina bifida, a hole in the heart or diaphragm, a blockage in the kidneys, tumors or complications with twins. All of these require different timing.

Who inspired you to become a pediatric surgeon? My grandfather was a surgeon in Nebraska; I have his medical diploma from 1916 from the National University of St. Louis (now defunct) hanging in my office. So I’m sure there was probably some influence there. But really it was my parents. Every year I give a talk to the National Youth Leadership Forum and I tell them that one of the keys to success is pushy parents—my parents made me think there was nothing I couldn’t do. And I believed them.

How do you spend your time off? On weekends, we love to take the time to bicycle in the Napa or Sonoma (areas). We’re road bikers, so we like to get away from the local traffic and head (off for) one of our favorite rides like the Silverado Trail. My husband is a wine enthusiast, so we enjoy supporting our Marin winemakers, like at the recent Marin County Pinot Noir Tasting.

Favorite restaurant(s) in Marin? The old standbys for us are the Buckeye, Frantoio and Sushi Ran, and we also love Lotus Cuisine in San Rafael, on Fourth Street and the Left Bank in Larkspur.

What’s your drink of choice? And where do you like to drink it? I like a martini or glass of wine at home on our back deck looking at the bay.

How would you like to be remembered? All of my professional accomplishments are not as important as being remembered as a person who loved life with a generous spirit. I love what I do, but what is important is how I affect the people I love.

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