Meet the brains behind the push to get more women in neurosurgery

Neurology, neurosurgery and our understanding of the brain in general is in its infancy — all the more reason to have a diverse range of smart minds with different perspectives and experiences participating in the study of it.

Canada has approximately 333 practicing neurosurgeons, only 36 are women

St. Michael's Hospital currently has seven women residents who specialize in neurosurgery — more than they've ever had. CBC News sat down with five of them. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

As the medical director of Toronto's Krembil Brain Institute, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh is at the top of the neurology — more specifically, neurosurgery — industry. But throughout most of her journey to get there, she says she's been the only woman in the room. 

"When I was younger and in residency I kept thinking one day it'll change," she said.

"And then I'd go to these skull base conferences and of the hundreds of people in the room there'd be three women. Now it's 2020 and I go to these conferences and there's maybe six." 

Dr. Gelareh Zadeh is a neurosurgeon and the medical director of Toronto's Krembil Brain Institute, a role she says she attained not only through her own hard work, but also because her hospital made space for women in leadership. (Submitted by Gelareh Zadeh)

Part of the reason operating rooms are lagging in diversity, Zadeh says, is because men at the top are not making space for it. 

The talent has always been there but we haven't been making the space for it.- Dr. Michael Cusimano, St. Michael's Hospital

According to the Canadian Medical Association, only 11 per cent of the 333 total neurosurgeons practicing in Canada are women. 

But strides are being made at the hospital level to change that.

Dr. Michael Cusimano at St. Michael's Hospital has been encouraging more women to enter the field of neurosurgery in an effort to diversify operating rooms across the country. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

St. Michael's Hospital, for example, usually sees one woman resident training in the neurosurgery specialty. This year there are seven. 

Dr. Michael Cusimano, the hospital's neurosurgery department lead, says it's up to people in the industry to make space for diversity. 

"The talent has always been there but we haven't been making the space for it," he said. 

I actually tried every other surgical specialty desperately hoping that anything else would stick.- Dr. Teresa Purzner, neurosurgical resident

So, when it came time to accepting neurosurgical residents into this year's program, Cusimano sought to do just that.

"Society has been lagging behind in attracting women to the [brain surgery] specialty and bringing them up through the ranks and taking on leadership positions as things move along." 

Zadeh, meanwhile, is still doing all-day operations while seven-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child. 

Women trailblazers in neurosurgery

3 years ago
Duration 2:59
St. Michael's Hospital has seven women residents specializing in neurosurgery — more than the hospital has ever had. Ali Chiasson sat down with five of them.

More women needed in OR, resident says

Brain surgery is often an on-call life, full of high stakes surgeries where doctors work for hours holding a patient's life, or at the very least their motor function or cognition, in their hands. 

One false move and the patient can wake up with a different personality. 

Dr. Han Yan remembers feeling unsure whether she'd fit in among her male counterparts in the discipline. She says she's excited about mentoring the next group of women to come through the hospital doors. (Mark Bochsler/CBC News )

"It's that acuity that made me choose neurosurgery," said resident Dr. Han Yan. 

She says the balance will improve as soon as more operating room doors (so to speak) are opened to women. 

"I remember when I was a medical student there was a male resident who was like 'Oh I developed a great relationship with my mentor … we use to go to hockey games and grab beers after work,' and I remember thinking … am I going to have that opportunity?"

Dr. Gelareh Zadeh is the medical director of the Krembil Brain Institute at the University Health Network in Toronto. She's still performing all-day operations while nearing the eight-month mark of her pregnancy with her second child. (Submitted)

Now that she's in her third year of residency and working alongside six other women, Yan says she feels encouraged.

"Just being able to see more women who will become staff one day with whom I can develop a close relationship with is very valuable." 

'It's nice to have women around'

Dr. Teresa Purzner says a decade ago she was the only woman in any of her placements. 

She's married to a brain surgeon so she didn't just hear about how demanding the work was, she experienced it by proxy through her husband. 

"I actually tried every other surgical specialty desperately hoping that anything else would stick," said Purzner.

"I just didn't like anything else like I liked neurosurgery. So ultimately, I begrudgingly went into the specialty." 

Dr. Teresa Purzner said she tried just about every surgical discipline before deciding on neurosurgery. Nothing 'stuck' like brain surgery did, she says. (Mark Bochsler/CBC News)

She's a sixth-year resident at St. Michael's Hospital and says being surrounded by more women has helped in establishing a work-life balance at least, or at least a brain surgeon's version of it.

"There are certainly challenges unique to being a mother so it's nice to have women around to bounce ideas off. Sometimes pragmatic ones like how do you find a nanny who works neurosurgical hours," Purzner said with a laugh. 

'It's rewarding'

"I'm not sure a work-life balance is really something that's attainable [in this discipline]," says second-year resident Dr. Nardin Samuel, who's recently come back to work after giving birth to her son Theo. 

"Maybe it's not about conceptualizing it as a balance but an integration into your life," she said.

"But at the same time it's challenging to leave your kids in the morning or at night when you're on call. But on the other side of that, it's rewarding when you're doing something for yourself something that you're really enjoying as well." 

Dr. Nardin Samuel says while establishing a work-life balance as a brain surgeon is challenging due to the hours, she doesn't want to see it as a deterrent for women entering the field. For her as a new mom, it's a sense pride and accomplishment. (Mark Bochsler/CBC News)

And for any medical students out there, Purzner has a message: 

"There can be specific challenges for women but just know that there are a lot of other females now in neurosurgery who are really rooting for you." 


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