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A distinguished career spanning more than a quarter century culminated with the retirement of Dr. Stephanie Brister of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, a quiet trailblazer, mentor to many around the globe, and part of a rare breed within her profession.
Once affectionately dubbed the "Queen of Hearts" in a 2008 story in
The Globe and Mail, the native of Manitoba was for many years the lone female heart surgeon on staff at UHN.
Herself mentored by Canada's first female cardiac surgeon, Lynda Mickleborough, who retired in 2003, Dr. Brister says her decision to call it a career at the end of 2014 was an evolution.
"It had been a while in coming," she says. "I think every surgeon contemplates when it's the right time for them to retire but for me it was a culmination of personal things that had happened and where I was at in my professional career."
"If I was going to continue on for a lengthy period of time, I had to do new training, explore new areas and I ultimately decided that I achieved what I wanted to in my career and I was willing and ready to start on a new path, look for new challenges."
Dr. Stephanie Brister, who was once affectionately dubbed the "Queen of Hearts" in a 2008 story in The Globe and Mail, was for many years the lone female heart surgeon on staff at UHN. (Source: UHN)
Was it a difficult decision for Dr. Brister? "In the end, no, but it was one that took several years. It's a slow decision that comes with time," she says.
All the same, her decision seemed to catch her colleagues off-guard. "They were surprised," says Dr. Brister. "It's a bit unusual to see any physician retire at an age that many would consider early. Unless there is a health reason, which there isn't. I'm perfectly healthy."
Born in a small prairie town, and one of six children, Dr. Brister earned her medical degree from the University of Calgary before moving eastward where she trained for another 10 years after medical school before working at hospitals in Montreal, Kingston, Hamilton, Peterborough and, ultimately, in Toronto.
When asked what her biggest challenge has been over the course of her 25-year career, Dr Brister replies, "The changing skill set that you need to practice cardiac surgery. That has been a tremendous challenge for us both as individual surgeons in developing and maintaining those individual skill sets and in trying to teach our residents and Fellows. We have gone from a specialty that was very hands-on, technical, skill-oriented with coronary artery bypass grafting and valvular surgery, which is very quote 'cut and sew', to something that is much less invasive. It involves a lot of medical imaging, a lot of catheter skills which are really skills that traditionally-trained surgeons hadn't acquired in the past."
Dr. Brister adds, "It is challenging to find your place in this new way of doing things but it's important that you do. We're a very challenging place to work. We have a very complex patient population."
And, what is her opinion of how the field of cardiac surgery is evolving? "It's moving in a direction, whether or not it's ultimately the right direction in the end I think only time will tell," she says. "We've tried to bring a bit of rigour to these new techniques and skills where we investigate them to ensure that we really are doing the best thing for our patients but in general I think any move to something that is less invasive and equally effective is a good trend. We just need to make sure that it truly is as effective."
Having performed upwards of 200 surgeries a year over a 15-year-career at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, mentoring hundreds of medical residents and Fellows along the way, being available for her patients at all hours of the day and night, sacrificing much of her personal life – Dr. Brister says she has no regrets. "It's been the best job I could ever have hoped for."