Brain Featured Stroke

‘It’s a dream job for me’: Dr. Christine Hawkes on breaking barriers & finding her place at Sunnybrook

Written by Lindsay Smith

Dr. Christine Hawkes is one of a kind.

A stroke neurologist and neuro-interventionalist at Sunnybrook, Dr. Hawkes is also the only female neurologist in Canada who practices Neurovascular Intervention.

But she says that distinction never crossed her mind when she was deciding on her specialty.

“I didn’t ever really think about it that way. I was just interested in the specialty and persisted and had lots of people help me out along the way,” she says. “It’s such an incredible field to be in and I feel so privileged to be able to do this work.”

Neurovascular intervention is the procedural side of caring for patients with diseases involving the head, neck and spinal cord.

“It’s usually done in a minimally invasive way, with small tubes that go in through the artery in the leg or the wrist and then we perform procedures to try and help patients with a variety of problems,” Dr. Hawkes says.

One of the most common conditions treated by neuro-interventionalists is large-vessel ischemic strokes, which are strokes that cause a large blood clot somewhere in the body, blocking a major artery. Patients suffering from hemorrhagic strokes, which result from bleeding in the brain, can also be treated by a neuro-interventionalist.

Dr. Hawkes says this kind of treatment has “changed the game” for these stroke patients.

“Their outcomes are much better. We see patients come in unable to move one side of their body, not able to speak, and then they walk out of the hospital and go back to their regular lives,” she says. “It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Taking care of her patients is one of the many reasons Dr. Hawkes loves the work she does.

“They come in very sick and it’s the worst day of their lives. Their families are devastated and sometimes, we’re really able to help them,” she says, adding it’s also exciting to see how treatments continue to develop for patients. “This field is changing so fast. There’s a lot of new technology and new devices that make these procedures quicker so patients can have more benefit and fewer problems related to the procedure. It makes it really interesting and something you can continue to enjoy for your whole career.”

Dr. Hawkes says one of the things that makes working at Sunnybrook special is it’s one of the few places that has all three disciplines — neurologist, neuroradiologist and two neurosurgeons — represented in the neurovascular surgery department.

“It’s a dream job for me,” she says. “Being able to talk to my colleagues from neurosurgery or neuroradiology, to ask their opinions — it really helps patients and it helps me continue to grow. I’m new to the field, and I want to keep learning and advancing my skills, and I can do that at Sunnybrook.”

As someone working in a field with few women, Dr. Hawkes knows it isn’t always easy to be in rooms where you don’t see anyone else who looks like you. But for anyone interested in pursuing a specialty like neuro-intervention, she hopes they won’t be deterred by that.

“You’re in the right place. You made it. There’s a reason you’re there,” she says. “There may not be someone who looks like you in that room in particular, but you can find your community and find mentorship.”

About the author

Lindsay Smith