From Team USA skater to standout surgeon

February 14, 2022
Dr. Colleen Donahue stands wearing scrubs.
Dr. Colleen Donahue wears scrubs instead of a skating costume these days, although the former synchronized skater still has her skates. Photo by Sarah Pack

As a colorectal surgeon, Colleen Donahue, M.D., stands out in a field traditionally dominated by men. But she’s used to being in the spotlight. Donahue is a former synchronized ice skater with Team USA.

“I think it completely shaped everything I am today. Being an athlete, especially at that level, at that caliber and the time commitment that went into it — the whole idea of working with the same girls, the practicing, the hours, constantly on end, having a common goal,” she said.

Synchronized skating, which supporters hoped would be part of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, involves teams of eight to 20 skaters performing challenging routines on ice. Donahue got her start as a child in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a coastal city near Boston.

“I did synchronized skating from when I was around five up until I went to college. There's a small team in my town, and my sister skated for them. So that's how I got started. And then I ended up moving to a more nationally known team and kind of just moved up the ranks with them. We were on Team USA. It was awesome. Those are still my best friends to this day.”

Colleen Donahue and fellow synchronized skaters form a circle.  
Dr. Donahue says her synchronized skating experience helped shape who she is today. Photo provided

Her team placed fifth in the 2007 World Championship in England. And Donahue managed all of that while juggling other sports. “I was playing high school field hockey and lacrosse and then driving two hours to skating practice. I practiced till midnight and did my homework in the car with a flashlight.”

It was good preparation for the busy days ahead in medical school and beyond. “Had I not learned those skills, those things you have to learn when you're young, and if you do, if you're busy enough and you figure it out, it just sticks with you forever. You have to have that organizational ability. I was forced to, otherwise you weren't going to succeed at anything.”

She cut back on skating after high school to focus on her future. After earning her undergraduate degree at the College of the Holy Cross, Donahue went to medical school at Tufts University and did her residency at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center. Then it was on to Chicago for fellowship training at the John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County.

Donahue is now an assistant professor in the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and the only woman on MUSC Health’s team of colorectal surgeons. “When they were looking to hire someone, they wanted a woman. Women in general, when you're talking about a sensitive subject like incontinence, the anus, the rectum, prolapse, the pelvic floor, it's uncomfortable. And so I think a lot of them want a woman surgeon.”

She’s happy to meet that need. “A lot of people ask, ‘Why the heck did you go into this? Who would ever want to be a colon surgeon?’ Because a lot of the people I see have hemorrhoids or fissures or fistula. There's nothing glorious about this. But the reality is that even for those small anal rectal procedures, or even for prolapse surgery, just fixing that for a patient gives them a completely new lease on life.”

College of Medicine Student Henry Colorado observes as Dr. Colleen Donahue examines patient Sheila Kirby. 
Dr. Donahue talks with a patient as College of Medicine Student Henry Colorado watches. Photo by Sarah Pack

And Donahue works to help patients feel at ease. “The first thing I tell them is I look at butts all day. There's nothing to be embarrassed about here. So let's just get past that right now.”

Her straightforward but kind approach to communication, which she applies to both patients and colleagues, is a skill she’s been honing since her days on the ice. “I think some of the best surgeons are the ones who have had some type of athletic career. They either know how to lead and be the captain-type person or even just how to make all the personalities work together and bring out different people's strong suits because that's what it's really all about.”

And she hasn’t forgotten the girls — now women — she learned that from. “I still have my skates. All my skating friends are coming down to visit me in March. We do a weekend somewhere every year, because we're all kind of spread out now. So I'll be the spot this year.”

Get the Latest MUSC News

Get more stories about what's happening at MUSC, delivered straight to your inbox.