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Exchanging a job for a passion: A neurosurgeon’s story

John Seelmeyer

Christopher Demers sat in a hospital room in 1996, waiting while his wife, Linda, gave birth to the couple’s first son.

Waiting and thinking, actually.

Waiting and thinking and preparing to make a breath-taking decision, all the more breath-taking because of the increased responsibilities that he would face as a father.

Christopher Demers prepared to chuck a successful, good-paying career in marketing and go back to school.

And not just any school. Medical school.

Today, Max, the son who was born that day, is a freshman at Reno High School. And Demers, who decided to start over, is starting over as a neurosurgeon in practice with Sierra Neurosurgery Group in Reno.

For months before he sat in that hospital waiting room some 15 years ago, Demers had known that he needed to change direction.

A native of New Hampshire, he earned a degree in English from the University of Chicago and got a job in the financial services industry. Within a few years, he had landed a job in the marketing department of Citicorp Diners Club. The job proved less than fulfilling.

“I knew I wasn’t really happy doing what I was doing,” says Demers, who like many people began to think about a career change, but again like many people didn’t get serious enough to do much more than think about the possibilities.

An epiphany arrived in the hospital waiting room.

Demers looked around and saw people doing exactly what he had established as his goal: A lifetime of challenging work.

“I wanted to wake up in the morning and say, ‘I love what I do,” he says.

But as an advisor at the University of Chicago was quick to note when Demers arrived to discuss his interest in medical school, English majors typically haven’t completed many of the scientifically demanding courses that are prerequisites for medical school.

Inching into the water, Demers enrolled in a night class in chemistry at the University of Chicago.

“My wife was hoping I would just get it out of my system,” he says. “But I loved it.”

By the time the couple’s new son was 18 months old, Demers’ wife returned to work and he returned to school to finish his prerequisites for medical school.

Demers spent a year as a scientific researcher at the University of Chicago before he started medical school on the other side of town at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

He earned a straight-A average and found the class work easier than he’d imagined. But that didn’t mean that life was easy for the family as Demers devoted his early 30s the time that many of his friends were hitting full stride in their careers to days in classrooms and labs.

“It was very scary,” he says. “And it was a source of considerable strain on myself, my family, my marriage.”

After missing class to care for an ill family member one day, Demers returned to learn that medical students had chosen their rotations while he was gone. He was stuck with neurosurgery, widely considered the most difficult rotation at Northwestern.

Almost from the start, however, Demers was entranced.

He watched while a neurosurgeon clipped an aneurysm, treating a balloon-like bulge in the brain of a patient.

“It was beautiful,” Demers recalls. “It was so elegant.”

As he completed his internship and residency in neurosurgery at Brown University Alpert Medical School in Rhode Island, he became even more entranced.

The brain, he says, represents the last great frontier of medicine, a challenging discipline for the physicians and researchers who seek to understand its workings.

Add the varied personalities of patients, and neurosurgery promises never to be boring, he says.

During his internship and residency (which included a stint as chief resident at one the nation’s busiest trauma centers), Demers developed a specialized interest in the study of complex spine procedures and treatments such as CyberKnife stereotactic radiosurgery for spine and brain tumors.

Now Demers is 39. He’s spent 15 years in pursuit of his dream. He and Linda have welcomed the arrival of a second son, Ethan. Together, they carefully picked Reno as the place they want to live it’s in the West, it’s close to outdoor sports and they’ve found the practice in Sierra Neurosurgery Group that presents the combination of intellectual stimulation and support of peers that Demers sought.

“I was looking for a practice where people value life outside of the hospital,” Demers says. “Now, I feel like I’m doing what I should be doing.”