Mayo Clinic Alumni Association – Know your Board – Erin Gillaspie, M.D.
Provides leadership | Makes policy decisions | Decides strategic direction and vision
Erin Gillaspie, M.D. (TS ’16)
Assistant professor of thoracic surgery
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
- Postgraduate: Masters of Public Health, Vanderbilt University Medical Center
- Fellowship: Cardiothoracic surgery, Mayo Clinic School of Graduate Medical Education, Rochester, Minnesota
- Residency: General surgery, Bassett Medical Center, Cooperstown, New York
- Internship: General surgery, Spartanburg Regional Medical Center, Spartanburg, South Carolina
- Medical school: University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, Florida
- Undergraduate: University of Florida, Gainesville
- Native of: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
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.
Why Mayo Clinic
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.
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.
I went to an alumni event in Nashville a couple of years after I completed training. It was wonderful to connect with people who had likewise trained at Mayo Clinic. They felt like family; we had an immediate kinship by virtue of being Mayo Clinic alumni. It was a warm, wonderful feeling and reminder of my years in Rochester. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the Alumni Association and look forward to a time when we can all get together again for alumni events.
I hope to inspire and mentor the next generation of physicians, surgeons and scientists and to help welcome them into our Mayo family.
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.