Chief of surgery credits teachers with success

Marylu Walters

Dr. Keith Aronyk routinely performs delicate operations on children's brains. But when he was a medical student he couldn't conceive of performing 12-hour brain surgeries.

"The confidence built up gradually and came from doing it over and over, with a more senior surgeon at my elbow," says the Edmonton pediatric neurosurgeon.

But applying for medical school in the first place called for a different kind of confidence, one that Dr. Aronyk says was inspired by two special teachers in his life.

After completing an accelerated program in elementary school and leaving his friends behind, Dr. Aronyk says he entered Grade 7 at Kenilworth Junior High School desperate to fit in.

"Junior high is a tough time in a young person's life and trying to fit in is sometimes more important than doing well academically. I was more interested in athletics. Also, I had friends who were not exactly interested in academic excellence." But in Grade 8, Dr. Aronyk met a teacher who had a profound effect on his future. "Mr. Hugh Murray really believed in me, even during that period of my questionable behaviour. He believed in me as a student with high potential and he never wavered in that. He even followed my progress through Grade 9 and went out of his way to congratulate me whenever I did well. He kept me focused and showed genuine delight whenever I succeeded at something. I've thought of Mr. Murray many times over the years. A teacher who believes in you as a person and goes to bat for you makes a big difference in your life."

Later, as a student at Edmonton's Bonnie Doon Composite High School, Dr. Aronyk met Mr. Barnes, the Grade 12 biology teacher who first gave him the idea that he could go to university.

"Very few of the boys in my group had come from families with a university tradition. But Mr. Barnes kept telling us that high school wasn't the end of learning but was a launching pad, and we could cover all these fascinating topics and others in more detail in a university. That was exciting to us, and he made us aware of the potential in Canada for anyone to go to university. You just have to work hard and perform, and you can go as far as you want." Three students in that group went on to become doctors as a result of Mr. Barnes's influence.

Dr. Aronyk is convinced that he would have taken an entirely different career path had it not been for Mr. Murray and Mr. Barnes. "I was into sports and had a summer job at the Edmonton Journal as a district manager. I had a company car and I enjoyed the Journal and the people I worked with. My mom and dad saw that as a job with a good future."

Instead, he earned his MD at the University of Alberta, and since then has trained and worked at Cornell Medical Centre in New York, the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and the Memorial Children's Hospital at Northwestern Medical Centre in Chicago. Currently, Dr. Aronyk is in Edmonton.

"My mission in life now is to help make a children's hospital in Edmonton."