March 3, 2022

Calgary's cardiac surgery residency program attracts top candidates

Program attracts equal mix of women and men
cardiac surgeons

With eight trainees learning under the guidance of 12 surgeons, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute’s Cardiac Surgery Residency Training Program (CSRTP) is one of the largest surgical training programs in the country.

According to surgeon Dr. Daniel Holloway, MD, program director of the CSRTP, it is also one of the best.

“Our surgical program is widely respected, so we attract some of the nation’s top candidates,” says Holloway.

About half of those candidates are women, which is good news for the program, according to Holloway.

“We are seeing more women in the field, and the four female residents in our program are excellent,” says Holloway. “They are a testament to the fact that we are able to select only the best for our program.”

These young female residents are fortunate to receive mentorship from surgeon Dr. Teresa Kieser, MD, PhD, who, as a woman, is a pioneer in her field. In fact, when she began her practice in 1988, she was only the third female cardiac surgeon in Canada.

Kieser received her medical degree from the University of Ottawa in 1976. She finished her surgical training in 1987 and completed residencies at several institutions including the University of Toronto, the University of Ottawa and Washington University, USA. She completed her PhD at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 2015.

When Kieser was training, there were very few female surgeons in any specialty for her to look up to.

“There were no women training alongside me in cardiac surgery,” says Kieser, noting during her years of residency she remembers just one other female surgical resident – a woman who was training to become an orthopedic surgeon.

As she began her practice, Kieser had no female role models, although she counts two men, Dr. Gerald M. FitzGibbon and Dr. Wilbert J. Keon, as wonderful mentors. Being a woman made the already challenging career path more difficult, but today Kieser is a highly lauded surgeon-scientist specializing in coronary artery bypass graft surgery.

She is also a role model for young female residents in Calgary’s renowned surgical program.

Dr. Holly Smith, MD, completed her cardiac residency training in Calgary in the summer of 2021 as chief resident. As the first physician in her family, she is also a trailblazer.

Smith is pleased with the growing diversity in the field of cardiac surgery, although she notes it is still male dominated.

“Forty per cent of the applicants for our cardiac surgery program are female, and in medical schools more than half of the students are female, so I think it is definitely changing,” says Smith. “It’s a good thing for female residents to see other women working in the field.”

Surgical resident Dr. Amy Brown, MD, who earned a master’s degree in biology with a focus in molecular genetics and a medical degree from Dalhousie University before coming to Calgary, was motivated to pursue cardiac surgery because it is technically demanding, requires an in-depth understanding of cardiac physiology and offers opportunities to help others.

“I truly appreciate the opportunity to fix an often life-threatening and debilitating problem and make a positive impact in patients’ lives,” says Brown. “Cardiac surgery is an incredibly demanding yet rewarding career, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Calgary’s program was of special interest to Brown because its leadership focuses on supporting mental and physical wellness for its residents while providing them with the best learning environment possible.

All three agree cardiac surgery is a good fit for those with a passion for life-long learning and helping others.

Dr. Kieser recalls advice from a surgeon about another’s comment regarding the reticence of referrals to women surgeons because of gender.

“His wonderful advice was to, ‘Do what you want to do, because that is what you will be best at,’” she says. “To succeed in life, it is vital to have the courage to do what is right for the world and right for you.”

About 1,800 open-heart surgeries are performed in Calgary each year, one of the highest volumes in the country. The Libin’s surgical program is well-known across the country and internationally, has cutting edge initiatives such as the growing minimally invasive surgical program and is respected for its innovative research programs.

Dr. Dan Holloway, MD, is a cardiac surgeon and assistant professor in the departments of Surgery and Cardiac Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

Dr. Teresa Kieser, MD, is a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon and professor emerita in the departments of Surgery and Cardiac Sciences at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). She is also a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.