Interview with Dr. Caouette-Laberge, an exceptional woman.
By Andréanne Cartier, Candidate M.D.-M.Sc. promotion 2021.
Dr. Louise Caouette-Laberge is a pediatric plastic surgeon at Saint-Justine Hospital. She is recognized as a leader in her field both nationally and internationally. Very involved in her profession, she is a professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Montreal since 1982 and was appointed Professor Emeritus in 2019. Dr. Caouette-Laberge also stands out for her humanitarian involvement. Co-founder of Mission Sourires d’Afrique, it is with ardor that she pursues her life-long goal of restoring a smile to children with cleft lip and palate. Dr. Caouette-Laberge is known for her rigor and strong work ethic, which explains her current busy life that she shares with her husband, her four children, and eight grandchildren.
On February 24, I had the chance to discuss with Dr. Caouette-Laberge at the University of Montreal. She gave us an overview of her remarkable career as a plastic surgeon. Although the percentage of women now entering medical schools has significantly increased over the last decades, few women choose surgical specialties for residency. The purpose of this article is to inspire future generations of women to aspire to a surgical career.
Which life experiences have motivated you to pursue long medical studies?
I have not always dreamed of a career in the health sciences. It was quite the contrary, as I first studied humanities. I studied the basics of Greek and Latin to become an archaeologist. At the time, I was dreaming of traveling the world in search of answers, because knowledge begins with the things we do not know! I developed my passion for science in my last year of college during my physics class. I then chose medicine because it was, in my opinion, the most human of sciences. I wanted to have a career in science with human contact in the foreground.
When, in your medical training did you know you wanted to pursue a surgical specialty?
After my preclinical training, I started a multidisciplinary internship at McGill because I was looking for a humanitarian career. My passion for surgery began when a plastic surgeon taught us the principles of tissue harvesting and re-implantation. The idea of ??being able to take a toe to rebuild a thumb fascinated me. I fell in love with microsurgery. It was to practice this discipline that I first decided to pursue my career in surgery and then to specialize in plastic surgery at the University of Montreal. When I finished my fellow in microsurgery, the specialty was booming and there was a need for this subspecialty in most hospitals in Quebec. I chose to work at the Sainte-Justine Hospital as a pediatric plastic surgeon for the diversity of pediatric practice and because I love children. At that time, I did not have proper training in pediatric surgery, but during my first year, I worked a lot with surgeons working in the field of cleft lip and palate repair, which became an important aspect of my practice over the years!
Surgery is a specialty that is slow to feminize. Do you think being a woman influenced you in your career choice?
No, not at all. I made my choice based on what I wanted to do. I do not believe that the qualities necessary for the profession of a surgeon are specific to a gender. The training of a surgeon is demanding, but it is the same for everyone. I never felt like my job was harder for me than for a man. I have always been amused by the patients who said to me: “as a female plastic surgeon, you must be very meticulous”. I used to answer them: “I know men who are more meticulous than me!”.
I never considered sacrificing my dream of starting a family for my surgical career. I was the first woman to join the plastic surgery residency program at the University of Montreal and it was a particular situation because I was pregnant with my first child. My other pregnancies were during my microsurgery fellowship and then at the beginning of my career. I was lucky since I had easy pregnancies, however, I made it my duty to never miss a call shift. My pregnancies never slowed me down, and on the contrary, it was a source of motivation and great pride. I would never have accepted that my colleagues take on more work to compensate for my pregnancies since becoming pregnant was my decision – not theirs.
During your journey have you ever been discriminated against or intimidated because you were a woman?
No, I have never perceived discrimination against me for being a woman. In surgery, I was the only female resident in the group and there was a spirit of competition. It was not uncommon for residents to compete in order to assist surgeons in the operating room. At first, some people tried to keep me away from the OR, but they quickly abandoned the idea because but I always stood up to them. These were not sexist considerations, as these behaviors were observed among other residents as well. In any team, whether it’s men or women, there will always be people who want to take advantage of others. I am not the type to let myself be stepped on and I am not someone who easily complains. There were very few women in surgery at that time, but it was a matter of choice and not a discriminatory practice. I think women were more reluctant to pursue a career in surgery given the potential difficulties of starting a family.
What is the best advice you received?
My mother was what I call a “caring” person. She always saw the good intention behind all my actions and this, even in situations where I completely crashed. My mother made me an optimistic person, which allowed me over the years to have a very positive outlook on everything I did. My mantra is that everything is fine until proven otherwise. When things are not so good, we re-organize ourselves, and we go for it. I’m also very athletic, I practiced competitive windsurfing for a long time. Sports have allowed me to build my character and also to acquire a work ethic and a desire for performance that I have transposed into several spheres of my life. Both my mother’s positive attitude and sports have allowed me to build confidence, and that has been of great use to me as a surgeon. I must say that I was also very lucky because I have always been well surrounded.
Work-life-family balance is an important issue for many women in medicine, particularly in surgery. How did you manage to maintain a balanced life?
My husband is a pediatric surgeon, so I was lucky to have someone who understood the peculiarities of this demanding career. It has not always been easy to combine two careers as surgeons. With a lot of organization, we got there. When we did our planning, it was not “the mother” who took care of the children’s appointments, it was “who can take care of them”. We have always maintained a collaboration that was viable for everyone and it was important for us to organize ourselves so that none of the two careers be negatively impacted. With two surgeon parents, the on-call shifts were frequent, this is why we chose to have help at home. When we got home after work, the house was clean and the meals were ready. We were therefore available to spend quality time with our children during the evening. On weekends, we were not in shopping centers, but rather on the ski slopes. The organization was not everything, we also had to be flexible because it is impossible to plan everything. During weekend shifts we were alone with the kids and had to find a way to make it work. I remember one time the anesthesiologist took care of my baby and rocked him while I was operating. I love my children and my family life, but I also care about my work.
If you could start over, what would you do differently?
I have always taken care to orient my career according to my interests, so I am happy to tell you today that I would not change anything in my career. I love life and I love my life! This way of seeing the world was transmitted to me by my grandfather who repeated to me until he was 97 years old: “ I regret nothing, I didn’t do only good things, but I did my best”. I want to age like my grandfather. Never have any regrets.
What is your definition of a “strong” woman, a leading woman?
She is a woman who is comfortable with herself and who does not allow herself to be stopped or slowed down by hesitation. She’s a woman who’s going forward and looking forward. A good leader is someone who has an analytical mind sharp enough to grasp and mobilize everyone’s strength. It’s someone who cares about the happiness of others because you have to put each person where they are happy with what they do. If a team member is doing something they dislike, they won’t do it right and the team will suffer from it. Good leaders don’t need to convince others to follow them; everyone likes to follow them because they make them do things that make them happy!
Finally, what advice would you like to give to future generations of women who aspire to a career in surgery?
I always tell my students to enter the internship with enthusiasm and an open mind. Find what you love and do it without hesitation! By doing what you are passionate about, you will never have to worry about looking for work again, everyone will want to have you because you will be good, well trained and you will have fun doing it. If you have to make an effort to go to work every day because it is difficult, it is probably because you are not in the right place. Our jobs are demanding, you will work hard. So, if what you do does not make you happy day in day out, just do something else.
In life, everything is a matter of choice and priority. You have to take the time to think about what you like, what you like least and what you don’t like. Start with the premise that you cannot do everything, nobody can do everything! Focus on what makes you happy and learn to delegate the rest. In surgery, you will be lucky to have a job that allows you to have help, take this chance!