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Thoracic surgeon, Assistant professor of thoracic surgery
Vanderbilt University Medical CenterVIEW PROFILE
Erin Gillaspie, M.D. (TS ’16), thoracic surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, watched her first orthopedic surgery at age 12 and was sold on a surgical career. “I wanted to have that kind of impact on patients’ lives,” she says. Her overachiever nature is evident from her CV, which is sprinkled with mentions of student of the year, state champion, president’s list, dean’s list, surgical intern of the year, excellence in research award, scholarship recipient and young investigator award. She’s only four years out of training and already has developed a robotic thoracic surgery program at Vanderbilt — a field she trained in at Mayo Clinic. Dr. Gillaspie says she is creating a mini-Mayo Clinic at Vanderbilt. If anyone can do it, she can.
“Patients see my CV online before coming to the clinic. They are comforted that I trained at an extraordinary institution. I get complimented by patients that I go above and beyond and think about them as whole people. It’s a testament to my training at Mayo that patients get my full and undivided attention.”
I was born in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and lived there till I was 12, when our family moved to Boca Grande, Florida, or paradise as I like to call it. My mom began working at Englewood Community Hospital. My sister and I decided to volunteer there so we could spend more time with her. Within days, Devin and I were up and running in our role to deliver mail around the hospital.
One day, my sister and I were walking down a hallway, and an orthopedic surgeon saw us and said, “You’re Jane’s girls. Do you want to come watch a surgery?” My mom gave permission and, the next thing I knew, we were in scrubs watching a right-sided total knee replacement; I was fascinated. The day after the surgery, I delivered a card to the patient only to discover she was up and walking already. I thought the impact on her life was spectacular. I requested permission to volunteer in the OR and had the opportunity to watch surgeries in between helping to turn over the rooms. I still remember the day I saw my first lung surgery; I knew in that moment, at age 13, that was what I was meant to do with my life.
Lung cancer has always had special meaning for me. When I was little, my grandfather was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He underwent surgery but, unfortunately, his cancer recurred. He’d worked in coal mines, was exposed to asbestos in the military and was a smoker. He quit smoking the day the Canadian government declared there to be a link between smoking and lung cancer. Unfortunately for him, it was too late. I remember the huge incision on his chest; he used to joke that he had been cut in half. His surgery gave us more time with him – precious time. I wanted to do that — treat lung cancer, affording children more time with their grandparents. I decided then to become a thoracic surgery, and I never wavered from it.
My sister also fell in love with medicine and is trauma critical care fellow at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
During my fourth year of residency at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, New York, I began to apply for thoracic surgery fellowships. Mayo Clinic stood out in the list of institutions due to its reputation, case complexity and number of thoracic surgeons I could train under. No one from my residency program had ever gone on to Mayo Clinic, but two women mentors I had said only positive things about Mayo.
I was extraordinarily lucky during my general surgery training to have two extraordinary women mentors in thoracic surgery – Dr. M. Bernadette Ryan and Dr. Karen McGinnis. There aren’t a lot of women in this field. When we take our boards, we’re tracked numerically. I’m No. 289 – the 289th woman in thoracic surgery in the U.S. To have their guidance and support during my early years was invaluable
Interviewing at Mayo, I fell in love with the faculty, institution and ethos. Everybody worked to take care of patients. You could tell that everyone felt they were doing important work.
A few weeks later, I received a call from the program director, Harold Burkhart, M.D. (TS ’02), who invited me to come back and spend a few days. Stephen Cassivi, M.D. (TS ’02), picked me up at the airport, and everyone showed me around. I attended rounds, spent time in the OR and pathology suite, and then was whisked downtown to the clinic. I was blown away by the kindness and professionalism. Trainees were mentored in extraordinarily complex cases.
I was thrilled by the opportunity to train at the No. 1 ranked Mayo Clinic.
When I drove in to downtown Rochester for my first interview and began to read the names on the buildings, it struck me that every tall building was a part of Mayo Clinic, not other corporations or businesses. I was filled with awe, looking at it for the first time.
The needs of the patient come first always. Everyone and every system should work to support that. You feel that unquestionably at Mayo. Everyone knows that they’re working toward the same goal.
I’m always endeavoring to re-create the efficiency and patient-centered approach to clinic. I always tell colleagues that I am creating my own mini-Mayo Clinic at Vanderbilt. Two of my pulmonology colleagues also trained at Mayo, so we know how a system like Mayo Clinic can benefit the patient, and we work to mirror that model. For example, I often zip over to other clinics and disciplines to see a patient rather than create unnecessary travel around the hospital for a patient.
There are so many special people at Mayo! I was fortunate to train under six incredible thoracic surgeons: Mark Allen, M.D. (TS ’90, Shanda Blackmon, M.D. (TSG ’16), Dennis Wigle, M.D., Ph.D. (TS ’06, division chair), K Robert Shen, M.D. (TS ’07), Francis Nichols III, M.D. (S ’89, TS ’92), Stephen Cassivi, M.D., and Claude Deschamps, M.D. (THD ’87, TS ’89), before he departed to Vermont. To choose a favorite between them would be like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. I am delighted to share a few special stories and memories.
Dr. Allen was a wonderful mentor; so many of my OR characteristics came from him. He was always meticulous and precise in his movements, and I try to replicate that every day. On a personal note, I will always be grateful for his warmth and kindness. I was in Rochester alone, and Dr. Allen had me over to his house for Christmas with his family every year. When I moved away, we all texted each other on Christmas because I missed attending the Allen Christmas dinner!
Dr. Blackmon was my touchstone to help navigate challenges, and a role model for how to succeed. She has also been one of the biggest sponsors of my career. She also made me part of her family. It was a pleasure to get to know her kids, dogs and bees. We still talk all the time.
Dr. Wigle encouraged creativity in the OR and allowed me to develop as an independent surgeon and begin my career at a sprint. He’s been a wonderful and sage adviser during my career.
I have had so many wonderful laughs with Dr. Shen, who was my program director. I still prize the time I had with him in the OR, on rounds and in clinic. He was instrumental in shaping my research career. Dr. Shen and his lovely wife had me to their home for Thanksgiving, creating more wonderful memores and making me into a huge fan of fried turkey.
John Stulak, M.D. (S ’06, CS ’09, TS ’10, Department of Cardiovascular Surgery), was my principal mentor on the cardiac side. I’ll never forget his mentorship, kindness and unrelenting support. I am so pleased to now be able to call him a colleague and friend.
No list would be complete without also mentioning Joseph Dearani, M.D. (TS ’96, Department of Cardiovascular Surgery), Richard (Rocky) Daly, M.D. (MED ’82, S ’88, TS ’90, Department of Cardiovascular Surgery), and Lyle Joyce, M.D. (CS ’09, Medical College of Wisconsin) – all brilliant surgeons, supporters, teachers, mentors and scholars.
I think I could go on all day about the extraordinary people and mentors I collected during my time at Mayo Clinic.
As soon as someone sees Mayo Clinic on my CV, they attribute legitimacy to me. They’re assured that I’m exceedingly well trained.
Before Vanderbilt hired me, the chair of thoracic surgery came to see me operate at Mayo Clinic. He said, “Erin, I’m going to change my flight and head home early because clearly you can operate.”
Patients see my CV online before coming to the clinic. They are comforted that I trained at an extraordinary institution. I get complimented by patients that I go above and beyond and think about them as whole people. It’s a testament to my training at Mayo that patients get my full and undivided attention. If they see me for lung cancer but mention that they’re having trouble walking or another issue, I make sure they get the appointments they need.
I’m an assistant professor of thoracic surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the head of Thoracic Surgery Robotics and newly appointed chair of the Surgery Undergraduate Medical Education Committee. I’m halfway through my fifth year here in Nashville.
One of the accomplishments of which I am most proud in my early career is having started a robotic thoracic surgical program at Vanderbilt – a skill I acquired under Dr. Wigle during my time at Mayo. When I started my new position, my partners were incredibly supportive. I identified a team, we trained together and the first case went off without a hitch! Three of my partners have caught the robot fever, so the program has expanded to four robotic thoracic surgeons.
I developed a parallel arm of robotic education — a training program for general, gynecologic, urologic surgery and thoracic surgery trainees — and lead it with colleagues in subspecialties. We hold training sessions to orient the residents to the robot in dry labs, and host annual wet labs with porcine models and cadavers. Our residents and students have found it to be an extraordinary opportunity. My fellow who completed his training last year is now doing robotics cases as a new attending. We’re so proud of him.
My dream is to be a tremendous physician and surgeon for my patients. I hope to make a difference in their lives. There’s nothing better than finding a photo from a patient on holiday with their grandchildren in my inbox. That’s the reason I do what I do.
In education, I want to continue to inspire students to pursue surgical specialties. I spend a great deal of time mentoring high school, college, medical students and residents.
In research, I hope to contribute to the ongoing evolution of lung cancer therapy. I suppose you could call me a burgeoning clinical trialist – bringing trial opportunities to our patients at VUMC and writing national clinical trials. My hope is that we will continue to improve patient outcomes and lung cancer survivability.
Completely different that I imagined and, after so many years of training, it was hard to break years of habits! On my first night on call, a brand new fellow called me about a patient in the ER who needed a chest tube. Before I knew it, we were both coming through the patient entrance of the ER, setting off metal detectors while a laughing security guard waved us through. My fellow placed the tube with skilled hands, and I realized in that moment that someone else was now responsible for the things I’d done every day during my fellowship.
My first case as an attending was a unique one — a sternoclavicular joint resection for infection and osteomyelitis. As I stood outside the OR scrubbing my hands, just as I had hundreds of times before, I reviewed the steps of the case and planned for a flawless patient outcome. I remember a calm coming over me as I stepped into the OR. I knew without hesitation, “I’ve got this. I know how to do this. I trained for this. I’ll have a great outcome.” And I did.
My transition to practice was smooth, which is a testament to the consultants who trained me at Mayo Clinic. My mentors trained me to be both technically proficient and allowed me to be a really creative surgeon, which has served me well. I’m able to help patients who have been turned down elsewhere.
I thrive on chaos! I love to have a ton of things going on and being really busy. I wake up at 5 a.m. and get the day started off with energy. In medicine, it is essential to be flexible. I always have a plan for how my day will run, but the reality is that it always changes – sometimes within minutes of arriving to work. My work is one of my passions. I love my patients and get jazzed after spending a day in the clinic — celebrating their cancer-free anniversaries and hearing about their families. I love doing complicated and difficult operations — it’s intellectually fulfilling. I get so much joy from my work that I don’t feel exhausted or run down even when days are long.
I have an incredibly rich group of friends. I think it’s important to surround yourself with wonderful people and things you love.
Enjoy every step of the way. It goes by so quickly and is such an adventure. Enjoy the people, time and crazy cases. You’ll collect incredible experiences, stories and friends.
As a result of all the fellows at Mayo Clinic, I have friends all around the country and the world.
I’m most proud of getting to be a thoracic surgeon. I wake up every day to live my childhood dream.
I’ve been privileged to win awards named for great physicians and surgeons and delighted to share a couple that are particularly meaningful.
I received the E. Donnall Thomas Award for research during residency. This award was the culmination of writing my first research proposal, applying for and winning funding, and then carrying out the project all while I was in my general surgery training. The basic science project evaluated the impact of obesity on cancer. The experience affirmed my passion for research. I was proud to receive an award named for an extraordinary physician who contributed immeasurably to the field of transplantation.
I also recently received an award for Excellence in Patient Experience in recognition of my outstanding performance and exceptional commitment to service excellence for patients at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I was so honored and grateful. This so nicely captures my passion for m patients – the philosophy so beautifully prioritized during my training at Mayo Clinic.
I’m also very proud of submitting my first R01, maintaining my passion for education and mentorship and, of course, my publications. I recently began writing a book about lung cancer with a colleague. The book is set to be published in 2021. How exciting to see your name on the cover of a book.
I never sit still. I have season tickets to the Nashville Predators (our hockey team) and the Nashville Symphony. I hike in our beautiful parks and love discovering new things about Nashville. I volunteer with several organizations, including the YWCA, Girls Inc., Hands On Nashville and Nashville Symphony. For the latter, I help teach kids about musical instruments. I love seeing the joy on their faces as they play their first musical notes.
I also have a small poodle, Poppy. She’s such a joy. We compete in obedience and rally events. It’s a fun diversion. When I rescued Poppy, she had congenital heart disease and needed open heart surgery. The irony of having a puppy needing thoracic surgery was not lost on me. One year after her surgery, I woke up to Poppy jumping on my chest. I have bad allergies and had gone into anaphylaxis from an allergy shot while sleeping. I saved her life, and she saved mine!
I’m unfailingly optimistic and always happy. I operate at an energy level that’s often gets described as off the charts. People often think of surgeons as stern and serious. Not me. I wear bright colors and high heels to clinic. I race around the hospital, high-fiving people along my route.
I grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Although Ontario is not known as a French-speaking part of Canada, my parents wanted me to be bilingual. I attended Toronto French School beginning at age 4. All my classes were in French. In fact, many of my teachers didn’t speak English. My French quickly outpaced my English, resulting in an unusual situation where I couldn’t communicate effectively with my parents, who were English-speaking only! My sister and I had a secret language and forged an unbreakable bond between the two of us.
See past New Chapter stories here.