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She gets inside your head: Neurosurgeon tries to serve as role model

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Updated: July 16, 2014 6:10AM



It’s high-tech and high-touch. That’s how Dr. Gail Rosseau, one of fewer than 400 female neurosurgeons in the U.S., describes her treatment philosophy.

“Neurosurgery must be a very highly technical field,” said Rosseau, neurosurgeon with Evanston-based NorthShore University HealthSystem. “We can’t do what we do without being at the tip of the spear of medical innovation. . . . That is something that we must deliver to our patients to make the operations increasingly safe.”

But that only gets you so far.

“It also has to be high-touch,” she explained. “We’re operating on patients’ brains and spines. We have these very personal relationships with patients and their families because of what we do. Patients are facing major decisions about disability, potential disability, life and death. You have to have a fairly advanced way of being able to engage people to have them trust you.”

After all, she notes, she’s opening up peoples’ skulls.

“When you think about it, that’s the most amazing trust one person can have for another. It’s incredible . . . the transformation in that relationship from hello, nice to meet you, to yes I’ve agreed to let you open my skull,” she said.

Rosseau, who recently was named vice president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and who in 2008 was considered for U.S. surgeon general, counts among her clinical interests head-injury prevention and advocacy, cranial-based surgery and advancing research for Alzheimer’s disease. She has given more than 150 lectures in the U.S. and more than 60 internationally.

“I always knew that I wanted to have a career as opposed to just a job that you go to support yourself,” Rosseau said. “When I started studying neuroscience and especially neural anatomy, it just clicked.”

In her medical school class of 150, she was the only woman who went into neurosurgery, and she was the lone woman in her residency program, she said.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeon’s database, there are 5,579 practicing neurosurgeons in the United States — 4,847 men, 372 women and 360 whose gender is unknown.

While the number of women is small, ground has been gained, said Dr. Julie Pilitsis, chairwoman of Women In Neurosurgery, a nonprofit that works to encourage and promote the success of women in neurosurgery, and which Rosseau co-founded.

“Over the 1960s and ’70s and ’80s, there were probably about four or five female neurosurgeons a decade,” said Pilitsis, a practicing neurosurgeon in New York. “Now, we have about 20 percent of our resident classes made up of women, so we have made some progress.”

Rosseau said neurosurgery has become more attractive “not just to women, but to young people in general” in part because of work-hour restrictions that emerged.

“There’s a national rule about how many hours you can work as a resident. That tends to level the playing field for women, particularly when the child-bearing years tend to also coincide with the residency years.”

Historically, there was an “either-or mentality” that kept women medical students from applying for neurosurgery residency programs, she said. “There was this sense of either I can be a neurosurgeon or be a wife and mother.”

And there were no role models in the field, which served as a barrier, she and Pilitsis noted.

“Now there’s enough of us in our 40s and 50s who are happily married with children, happy in our careers and successful that more women and men are choosing it,” Rosseau said.

“People need to see this as an achievable goal and see other people that have done it because it’s already daunting,” Pilitsis said. “If you have somebody there that you can draw similarities to, I think that inspires you.”

To keep women in the field, those already there need to serve as mentors and sponsors, they said.

“Sponsorship is a more active role for the senior person in which you place some of your own political capital on the line,” Rosseau said. “You go out of your way to find opportunities to bring along the next generation. I try to do that with young men and women.”

Rosseau said finding work/life balance is important. It became a major priority for her and her husband, who is an orthopedic surgeon, following watershed moments they experienced early in their careers.

“We were both interns at the same time, and during about a six-week period, for three Saturday nights we had gone to retirement dinners of senior surgeons,” she shared. “It was always a large group of people at a dinner in a nice hotel or country club. The awardee would be honored. People would say nice things about them, and then they would get up at the end of the evening, receive this plaque and turn to their families and say, ‘Thank you for putting up with me. Thank you for all those 40 years when I couldn’t be at home with you.’

“Over and over again my husband and I saw this visual image [of] very nice, accomplished people who basically traded their lives with their spouses and children in exchange for this useless plaque. We said we’re not going to do it that way.”

Rosseau, 57, said she remains passionate about her field and about having the opportunity to work with some of the latest innovations to help patients.

“NorthShore has invested in equipment that we’re helping develop with the National Research Council of Canada that is allowing us to practice surgeries on a virtual reality simulator,” she said.

“Imagine if I’m seeing you as a patient and delivering the hard-to-accept-for-anybody news that you have a brain tumor and it needs to be removed surgically. Now imagine that I can do a surgical rehearsal in which I take your patient-specific images, both your tumor and the nuances of your individual anatomy, and say this is exactly how we’re going to get your tumor out. Patient-specific surgical rehearsal should make surgery safer. It also should make it less expensive.”

For others considering what career path to follow, Rosseau offers this prescription:

“Follow your passions. I think the only way you can be good at what you do, no matter what you do, is to love it.”

Email: fknowles@suntimes.com

Twitter: @KnowlesFran



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