Well worth the wait

(Edmonton) Jenny Souster faced a daunting reality when she started her residency in neurosurgery in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. No woman in the program’s 50-year history had made it through the seven-year program.

That didn’t scare her, and now Souster’s name goes down in history as the first woman to graduate from the neurosurgery residency program at the University of Alberta.

“I have four brothers, so I think I’m just used to men and surviving with men,” joked Souster. “Someone had to be the first and I’m honoured that it was me.”

“Female neurosurgeons are just superb,” said Keith Aronyk, director of the Division of Neurosurgery in the Department of Surgery. “Technically they’re excellent and we need more of them in Canada. This is a tremendous start and are we ever excited.”

Souster credits her timing in entering the program, saying that the current academic faculty were very supportive.

“The group of neurosurgeons working here have been wonderful and haven’t made it difficult,” said Souster.

“Our training program has gone from four teachers in the beginning 50 years ago to 13 now,” said Aronyk. “There’s a diverse group of neurosurgeons teaching and because of our funding scheme we’re able to focus on our teaching a lot more.”

Souster says most residents go through a period of wondering if they can make it. A few years in to her residency she felt burnt out and took some time off to re-evaluate her future.

“I realized I was just in love with neurosurgery and it’s what I wanted to do,” said Souster. “I ended up coming back with a lot more energy and drive to finish the last few years. It’s a long haul, and you just have to make sure you take care of yourself along the way.”

Souster thinks that many women don’t make it through the program because surgical sub-specialties are a tough lifestyle.

“You have to sacrifice a lot of time, because it’s a hard residency with long hours,” said Souster. “For a lot of women, we’re at the age where we want to have families, so I think that might be one deterrent. The workload is very high; there are a lot of expectations.”

Souster’s education isn’t quite done. She recently left for California to do a fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. She wants to come back to Canada to practice, and Aronyk is hopeful he can bring her back to the U of A so future students have a female role model, something Souster went without.

“I do want a family and I do think some women in neurosurgery have sacrificed that,” said Souster. “I’m definitely keeping my eye open for women to see how they’ve done it and how they’ve been successful at it, but so far I haven’t met too many of them.”