Money & Career

Meet one of Canada's few pediatric neurosurgeons

Dr. Jenny Souster is the first woman to graduate from the University of Alberta in neurosurgery. The mother-to-be shares what it's like to operate on babies.

Photo by Brian Bowen Smith

Photo by Brian Bowen Smith

Jenny SousterOccupation: Pediatric neurosurgeonAge: 35Hometown: EdmontonTraining: MD, University of Calgary; FRCSC (neurosurgery residency), University of Alberta

 

Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?

A: A vet! But then my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 15, and it gave me a real drive to go into medicine. I also watched a lot of medical dramas like ER, which made the job seem much more exciting than working with cats.

Q: Why did you specialize in pediatrics?

A: In med school I loved being hands-on, so surgery was a natural fit. And I’ve always been drawn to the brain — it’s a fascinating organ. Also, children’s brains are still growing and forming connections, which may allow them to relocate functions to other parts of the brain after an injury or surgery. So while there are still some sad outcomes, kids often do really well.

Q: Is it difficult to operate on babies?

A: Yes, you need delicate and precise technical skills. Most pediatric surgery is microsurgery, so you’re using loupes (glasses with built-in magnifying lenses) all the time. Also, I’m currently eight months pregnant with my first child, so the job is even more emotionally and physically challenging now. But when I’m in the operating room, I have to switch that stuff off and focus on the task at hand.

Q: Why are there so few female neurosurgeons?

A: The timing is tricky, because male neurosurgeons in their 30s are at the stage when they’re most driven to work, work, work; they want to get as many operations under their belts as possible. But like other demanding careers it’s not naturally conducive to having children. So it’s been a struggle. I’m passionate about my work and my patients, but being a mother is a huge priority too. If more women come into this field there may be a shift in the way we practise that would allow more time for having a family.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

A: It was from my mentor and colleague, Dr. Robert Broad. I’d had a complication in one of my surgeries, and it was difficult to deal with. He said, “If you never make a mistake, you’re not learning.” As a surgeon, you never want anything to go wrong, but you only learn by pushing your limits and taking risks.

Q: What’s the worst part of your job?

A: Breaking bad news. We can’t predict the future; we just know the most likely outcome, which is hard because everyone wants concrete answers. Sugarcoating doesn’t help — I always try to connect with the families and establish trust. I think it’s important to be very honest and answer questions directly.

Q: How do you manage the work/life balance?

A: It’s important to look after yourself. I took time off in the middle of my residency because I was stressed at work and in my personal life and had to step back. I realized, though, that neurosurgery wasn’t the problem, which is why I went back to it, but only after making adjustments to better balance my career and well-being. Now, knowing my family is always here to support me, it’s easier to cope with the stress.

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