Finding balance

Plastic surgery residency, content creation, single mom-ing and more: How this DO juggles it all

Danielle Ward, DO, shares how she came to be an osteopathic plastic surgery resident, social media star and single mother – and how she manages it all.


Get ready to be inspired by Danielle Ward, DO! She’s a plastic surgery resident at Larkin Community Hospital Palm Springs Campus in Hialeah, Florida. Her story is one of perseverance—from being a single mom and nontraditional medical school applicant to writing and publishing her own book, “Atypical Premed.”

Dr. Ward was born in Germany to military parents who were graduates of the United States Military Academy West Point. A self-described “military brat,” she completed her undergraduate degree at Louisiana State University in biochemistry. While applying for medical school, she kept busy working in parasitology and immunology research at LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. During the five years she spent working in research, Dr. Ward completed her masters in biochemistry at the University of Saint Joseph.

Her story is unique, and it is all hers. Not one to give up easily, Dr. Ward remained committed to her goals through several medical school application cycles and a couple of match attempts at plastics. Read the edited Q&A below to learn more about the key to her success.

Dr. Ward and her debut book, Atypical Premed.

What drew you to osteopathic medicine?

I wanted to be a well-rounded physician. I didn’t care about the initials that came after my name. I loved that DO schools saw “me.” It wasn’t just a numbers game. The osteopathic admission department saw everything I was doing as a person – balancing childcare, working and earning a master’s degree simultaneously. As fate would have it, I ultimately attended a school of osteopathic medicine.

How have you balanced being a medical student and now resident as a single mother?

I had my daughter sophomore year of my undergraduate career, shortly before I turned 20. There was a gap between undergraduate and medical school. By the time I enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine Georgia, my daughter was 7. She was not a baby anymore, so childcare and sleepless nights were no longer an issue. She would go to school during the day and an aftercare program in the afternoon. During the first two years of medical school, I was in class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Each night, we were able to spend quality time together and talk about our day. After putting her to bed at 7:30 p.m., I would study until 1 a.m. It was a busy time, but we were able to fit everything in with careful time management.

Dr. Ward and her daughter, Tiana.

With rotations, your time is not your own. I was fortunate that my sister was able to move in and help out with my daughter. She was a huge help during my third and fourth years of med school, but I always joke that half of my med school classmates watched my daughter at some point because I would bring her to all the events. They helped me through those challenging years.

After medical school, I completed a traditional rotating internship year at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. My family saw how busy I was in Philadelphia, so we decided it would be best for my daughter to move in with them in Mississippi. She’s actually with my family right now.

Now, my balance with her is more focused on quality time over quantity. If she has performances or birthdays, I’m flying to see her. She comes here too, but she’s in high school now and heavily involved with activities like color guard and band. It’s just a balancing act. I wanted her to have stability. I grew up in a military family, and moved four times during high school alone. I didn’t want her to experience that.

The number of Black doctors in plastic surgery is 3-3.5% based on several research studies. How did you beat the odds and how can the profession promote more inclusiveness?

Did I really beat the odds? I’m still an anomaly. Yes, 3% of plastic surgeons may be Black, but that percentage is even lower for Black female surgeons. I was at a conference recently, and it was mentioned that there are less than 100 Black women in the U.S. who specialize in plastic surgery.

How many Black DOs do you know in plastic surgery? So far, I have found two. This tells me there is much to be done. The fact that you can count the number of Black DO plastic surgeons on your hand in 2023, to me, is a problem. I think the profession as a whole, with leadership from the AOA, can improve this by fighting for more inclusivity. We have to make progress however we can. For example, I was the first osteopathic medical student to become National President of the Student National Medical Association.

I won’t truly feel I’ve beaten the odds until there are more Black plastic surgeons out there, and specifically more Black DO plastic surgeons. There is still discrimination, in general, toward DOs in plastic surgery. I went through it. I encountered one program that said, “We screen out DOs, but it’s not personal. It’s a numbers thing.” To me, that is very personal.

Your book, “Atypical Premed,” blog/vlog and social media all provide inspiration to those following in your footsteps. What advice would you give someone that may be having doubts about their ability to get accepted into medical school or the specialty of their choice?

The biggest advice I have is not to be your own worst enemy. Our mind is our biggest adversary, and doubt is what keeps people from applying and going for it. As the saying goes, “A ship is safe in the harbor.” Since I’m in Miami, I’ll say, “A yacht is safe in the harbor, but yachts aren’t meant for the harbor.” You’re meant to be out on the rough waters. It’s not always going to be smooth sailing. You just have to push through. Do not be afraid of rejection.

Had I matched into medical school when I initially planned, my daughter would have been very young. How would I have successfully completed medical school or residency? Everything happens at the perfect time when it’s meant to happen. I always get questioned if a candidate is too old to pursue medicine. If you’re going to be 40 or 50 anyway someday, you might as well be doing something you love. It can be hard when you don’t see others like you represented in medicine, but you’re not always going to be surrounded by people who look like you or have similar experiences. You have to be the person who does it so that you can pave the way for others.

Dr. Ward performs surgery.

What would you like other physicians and medical students to know about your specialty, plastic surgery?

We are not just about breast augmentations, abdominoplasties and mommy makeovers. That stereotype drives me crazy. Plastic surgery is so diverse. We are managing burns and craniofacial needs, including cleft lips and cleft palates. We’re reconstructing ears and performing upper body extremity and lower body extremity reconstruction, to name a few. Plastics works alongside a diverse mix of surgical specialties. I always say we’re the surgeon’s surgeon.

For example, if neurosurgery has an issue with a closure over the spine, we are consulted and we complete the closure. Another example would be a sternal wound, where another surgeon may begin the procedure but we are called upon to finish it. There’s a lot to the field. Since I’m completing my residency in Miami, people sometimes assume I’m only practicing in cosmetics, but that’s not my passion. I might include a small volume of aesthetic procedures when I eventually enter practice, but reconstruction is my passion: restoring the body’s structure and function and giving people that happiness.

What is next for you?

The number one thing is being the best resident I can be. Otherwise, YouTube videos are my new thing and I recently hit 100 subscribers on my YouTube vlog.  I’ve been sharing my experiences and have written a blog for years but realized that no one wants to read hundreds and hundreds of posts. My most recent vlog is about not matching because that was a very long process for me and sharing my insights can hopefully help current and future students.

I would like to eventually write another book about my journey to become a plastic surgeon and then a guide to getting into a residency.

I also have an interest in research and recently submitted a chapter for a textbook. I don’t know when it will be published. Right now, my focus is on being a resident, but also trying to diversify my experiences outside of medicine.

As a future plastic surgeon, I’m trying to keep my options open because my field is so diverse. Every day in residency I do something new, and I think, “Whoa, I love this.” I don’t want to put myself into a bubble, but I do see myself doing great things and not giving up. If anyone wants to follow along for the ride, you can find me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and my own website, in addition to my YouTube channel.

Related reading:

From suturing to bling: How Gabriel Chiu, DO, built an empire off and on-screen

How I matched in plastic surgery

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