Being Mama: Dr. Teresa Purzner

Mother of three. Neurosurgeon. Researcher who’s discovered a potential cure for pediatric brain cancer. Entrepreneur. Dr. Teresa Purzner wants us to know that despite appearances, she doesn’t have it all together…

smiling woman ion classroom

When Teresa and Jamie Purzner entered the University of Toronto neurosurgery residency program in 2009, they were thrilled to embark on such an exciting journey together.

“Marrying my husband is the only easy life decision I’ve made and it was the best one,” says Teresa. “There’s something really special about having someone understand you, your work and what you’re going through so well. We bounce ideas off each other all the time and select skill sets that complement each other so that together we’re unstoppable!”

But when they did the pediatric portion of their neurosurgery training, they also had to confront one of the hardest challenges of their lives together: telling parents that their child was suffering from a terminal illness. “There are very few things more heartbreaking than looking a parent in the eye and having to deliver bad news to them,” says Teresa. “You’re living and partaking in every parent’s nightmare over and over again.”

As time wore on, the task didn’t become any easier for Teresa and Jamie. They saw countless cases of medulloblastoma – the most common form of childhood brain cancer – and they were frustrated with the treatment process that often leaves children with permanent brain damage.

So, in 2012, the couple decided to put their neurosurgery careers on hold to pursue PhDs in developmental neurobiology and search for a cure. Over the course of the next six years, they developed a potential treatment for medulloblastoma and went through the grueling process of trying to get their drug to clinical trial. And they had three children during that time too!

Teresa admits that she thought of giving up on their dream countless times, but she credits her children for giving her the strength to keep going. “Getting a drug into a pediatric clinical trial is extremely difficult and there were many moments in the years that it took to do it where the entire effort should have failed,” she says. “There were plenty of times where everyone else had accepted that this was the end of the line. But I think [having children] gave me the extra bit of appreciation of just how much you want your child to be OK and that’s what gave me the motivation to give one last push that ultimately led to success.”

Becoming a mom also motivated Teresa to create a science-based baby food range called Cerebelly. “The first three years of life are a period of tremendous brain growth,” she explains. “By the time a child is three years old, their brain is 80 percent of the size of an adult’s and has twice the connections. Cerebelly ensures specific nutrients are given at specific times to maximize the support of early brain growth. We’ve taken decades of research and translated it into a delicious, nutritious organic baby food line.”

You might be tempted to label her a Supermom, but Teresa is quick to dispel that myth. “Every day it’s a challenge trying to figure out how to balance it all, and there are many days where I feel like I’m disappointing everyone,” she says. “Also, I might be a neurosurgeon with a PhD in developmental neurobiology and an entrepreneur who helped develop a drug for children with brain cancer, but I still feel totally lost when it comes to parenting most of the time!”

Teresa says she couldn’t do it all without a rock-solid support team. “The people who have come on board with all my ventures are insanely overqualified, but they come on because they believe it’s worth doing. I’ve also been very fortunate to have surgical mentors who are unusually understanding and supportive – something that certainly hasn’t always been the case for women in surgery! And I can’t forget the most important people – my parents have been a lifeline for my family and I scored the world’s best nanny. It’s only because of all these people that I can do what I do and still get home to my children. While I have many exciting aspects of life, nothing compares to the moments I’m with my husband and children. It’s bliss.”

When it comes to managing stress and self-care, Teresa confesses that they’ve never been her strong suits. “I get four weeks off a year, plus a week around Christmas,” she says. “Those weeks off are my lifelines and I’m often counting the days until the next one. Outside of that, I’m very open and unapologetic about feeling overwhelmed. If it’s all becoming too much, I tell my family and coworkers and they tend to back off and step up. To be frank, though, I’m not good at self-care. I’d be very interested in how people do it better than I do.”

For all her accomplishments, Teresa is very humble and reticent to dish out words of wisdom to new moms. “I always feel unqualified to give parenting advice outside of food!” she laughs. “But I’d say, look at other people you consider great parents, ask them questions and take what feels right from their answers. Also, surround yourself with people who are better at certain things than you are. It’s impossible to be great at everything, and knowing that you need a support network is half the battle.”

As for her aspirations for her three children, they don’t involve anything as lofty as going to medical school or making groundbreaking scientific discoveries. “I hope that they’ll be happy, productive people who face life with curiosity and courage,” she says. “I also hope they’ll know how much their parents love them and that they’ve always been and will always be the most important thing in the world to us.”