‘Dr. Mom’ Maral Ouzounian is the only female surgeon on a downtown Toronto hospital’s cardiac team

By Andrea Gordon

The Star

There will be no pancakes drenched in maple syrup, or rosebuds on the breakfast tray for Dr. Maral Ouzounian this Mother’s Day.

Ouzounian, who has a 2-year-old son and is seven months pregnant with her second child, is the only female cardiac surgeon on the eight-member team at the University Health Network of downtown Toronto hospitals.

Her gift from schedule-makers on this special day? On-call duty for the weekend.

“To be honest, I think they didn’t even notice,” laughs Ouzounian, who didn’t realize it herself until last week.

Being on call means arriving at the hospital at 7 a.m. for rounds to check in on the 20 cardiac surgery patients in intensive care and five to 10 of her own patients on the cardiac ward. She could also spend the day in surgery. In this job you have to be prepared for anything.

By late Saturday evening she had read a quick bedtime story to her son Oliver and was on her way to the hospital. An emergency cardiac patient was en route by helicopter and it looked like Ouzounian would be spending all night at the operating table.

To Ouzounian, Mother’s Day duty is part of the territory for a cardiac surgeon. Besides, “part of what mothers do is work.” She knows she’s far from the only mom working Sunday, never mind spending every other day of the week juggling competing demands.

She is, however, the only one who performs about 200 major heart procedures a year — from bypass surgery to complex repairs of aortas —to save lives at the Toronto General Hospital’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre. She’s also one of 19 women among 133 surgeons in all specialties at UHN.

Ouzounian, 40, says the number of women in the ranks is growing, and she does what she can to encourage female medical students and residents entering the field and looking for mentors.

“I tell them, yes, it’s possible to be a cardiac surgeon and to be an academic doing research at U of T, and a mom.”

It sounds like a tall order, especially for a woman who stands 5 feet tall and uses a stepstool to perform complex cardiac surgeries that can last eight to 10 hours. Her expertise is complex aortic repair, a highly specialized skill that includes repairing aneurysms at risk of rupture and, in emergency settings, repairing aortas that have torn or ruptured.

She’s also not bad at changing diapers and wiping noses.

Pregnancy can have its drawbacks when you’re in the operating room. The bigger the baby gets, the further Ouzounian has to reach to attend to her patient. And she dare not drink too much liquid for fear of having to scrub out and back in again too many times.

“I remember with (first-born) Oliver I did a ruptured thoracoabdominal aortic aneurysm,” she says. “I was 38 weeks and I could barely reach the table. It was one of those 12-hour marathon procedures.”

Two days later she went into labour.

She reconciles parenthood and an intense career by accepting that balance on a given day is rare. “But when I’m at work I’m 100 per cent there and when I’m home I’m 100 per cent with them.”

She’s referring to her husband of seven years, Michael Torbay, and Oliver. On Saturday mornings when she isn’t on call, she often takes her son when she visits her patients in hospital. They love it, and so do the nurses.

When they met in 2008, Torbay couldn’t believe the dynamo he’d just been introduced to was a heart surgeon.

“I checked her fingernails (short and clean are a trademark of surgeons). Then I Googled her. Turns out it was true.”

Families of surgeons learn to live with certain realities.

“Some days she’s gone before we get up and home after we’ve gone to bed,” says Torbay, who works from home and runs his own advertising agency.

Dr. Maral Ouzounian is seen in her Toronto home with her son Oliver, 2.
Dr. Maral Ouzounian is seen in her Toronto home with her son Oliver, 2.  (Richard Lautens)  

And by the way, he adds, just because Ouzounian isn’t officially on call doesn’t mean she isn’t. She is dedicated to her patients and makes it her business to be there when they need her.

Oliver may be just learning to talk, but he’s mastered the cuss word that his dad utters when the shrill beep of Ouzounian’s pager goes off, signalling she may be on the run.

“We don’t have wine with dinner because you never know,” she says.

Ouzounian says there’s no way she could do it without a hands-on partner and colleagues “who allow me to thrive as a surgeon and still be a devoted mother.” And there’s no way her family could do it without the active involvement of both grandmothers, her dad, their full-time nanny and a circle of friends with kids.

“It’s okay to ask for help from the people around you.”

Her career wasn’t a childhood dream. But it was born of a life full of learning. She spoke Armenian and English and went to French school as she grew up. She began playing piano at age 4 and she and her two younger sisters were accomplished musicians.

At McGill University, she studied science and music and was torn between which to pursue. She opted for 14 more years of school, including six years studying cardiology, a PhD and fellowship with a pioneering cardiac surgeon at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston.

Soon after observing a cardiac surgery in med school, “I knew this was how I wanted to spend my career.”

It offered everything she believed being a doctor was all about: expertise, technical training and innovation; a powerful one-on-one relationship with patients facing life-threatening conditions and who “put their faith in your hands;” and the opportunity to make an immediate impact on someone’s health.

In retrospect, all those years of precise finger exercises and repetition at the keyboard paid off.

“I’d practised hours and hours of Beethoven and Brahms, and then I spent hours practising tying knots and anastomosis (surgically sewing tubes together).”

Being a surgeon and a mom also have a few things in common. Energy and multi-tasking skills are a job requirement. Plus many stints as a sleep-deprived resident on call means Ouzounian can nap anywhere and can snap awake and drop off to sleep in an instant. That comes in handy when there’s a newborn in the house.

This summer, after her second child is born, she’s looking forward to time with both children. She says she’ll take three months’ maternity leave. Torbay’s eyebrows shoot up. Well yes, she’ll still contact the hospital, review the odd scan and be in touch with patients.

But don’t ask her to indulge in the mom guilt.

“I’m at peace with it. This is what I knew I was getting into,” she says.

“As Oliver grows, he’ll see a strong role model who does work she loves and helps people.”

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