A Marathon, Not a Sprint, by Raphaële Charest-Morin, MD, FRCSC

Read Dr. Charest-Morin's motivational essay about life as a female spine surgeon

This article was featured in the Winter 2020-2021 AO Spine NA community newsletter. Read the full newsletter here.

Acclaimed Canadian orthopedic surgeon, former AO Spine North America Fellow, and AO Spine Knowledge Forum (KF) Tumor associate member Raphaële Charest-Morin, MD, FRCSC, enthusiastically encourages women to pursue careers in spine surgery and spine research. She says these careers are “a marathon, not a sprint” and asserts that a strong drive—and a strong support network, including mentors—is essential.

For the past two years, I have practiced spine surgery at the Vancouver Spine Surgery Institute, a highly specialized organization in Vancouver, Canada. Previously, I was in Quebec City, Canada, for three years. I have wanted to be a surgeon for as long as I can remember. My dad was a donor to Doctors Without Borders and from an early age I was fascinated by surgery. I wanted to help people.

My involvement with AO Spine started with my AO Spine North America Fellowship at Vancouver General Hospital in 2014–2015. One of my mentors was Dr. Charles Fisher, who is the Chairperson of the AO Spine KF Tumor, and he integrated me into the Knowledge Forum. AO Spine is a useful network in terms of all of the people I can engage in discussion about complex cases. It’s a very collegial environment. It’s easy to reach out to people all over the world, and that’s really a strength of this KF.

l know that there are women surgeons and researchers who have faced a lot of challenges, but I have been very lucky as I feel that throughout my education and career, people have encouraged and helped me. I never felt I was treated differently because I was a woman.

It might be hard for some people to reconcile this career with having a family, but if you have great family and social support, you can have both family and a career as a spine surgeon. I have two children, eight and four years old, and I have a really helpful partner. I know from personal experience that it can be done. In fact, I had one of my children during my residency, which is one of the craziest, busiest times in any surgeon’s life.

I’m in a great group of surgeons, including young fellows and residents who are here to learn. They push us forward. The role of mentor is an important one: I have had excellent mentors and by being a mentor, I can pass this support on to the next generation. I believe that by being a role model, I am encouraging women to find their own places in spine surgery. Whether a young woman is considering a career in research or a career in surgery: understand that you will have to make some sacrifices, but work hard, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Give yourself objectives and stick to them. It will pay off. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll get there.


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