As an elite spine surgeon, Dr. Evalina Burger’s cup seems to be constantly overflowing but she reminds herself not to get bogged dow
n. She welcomes the flood of ideas, takes note of them and quickly moves to the next item on her list. She has become adept at pivoting and being able to refocus without missing a step. A skill she learned very early in her career.
Freshly out of medical school, she began training as a surgeon during active combat situations in South Africa; arriving and leaving work under the transport of armed escorts. She began to perform orthopedic procedures out of necessity. It was then, two mentors recognized her hand skills and encouraged her to apply to the orthopedic residency program. Shocked at their encouragement, Dr. Burger knew acceptance into the program, as a female, was incredibly slim. Despite those odds, she applied anyway.
As the only female in her resident class, she relied on grit and perseverance to cement herself as a surgeon skilled and competent enough to be in the program. Looking back, it was one of her biggest challenges. Spine surgery was not in her original plan, she saw herself as a hand surgeon. “I learned to be pliable and nimble”, recalls Burger, which led her to practice one common theme that has continued to play a significant role in the formation of her career; never saying no to opportunity.
Dr. Burger’s willingness to say yes has given her vast experience in a number of different areas. She attributes her confidence and ability in being a leader, to those experiences. Always open to life and what comes next. It was never her ambition to be Chair of an academic department, but it became her path when the opportunity came to her and she simply said, yes.
At the time of our meeting, Dr. Burger had just completed her first 100 days as the Chair of Orthopedics and it was on this day she also learned she had joined a very distinguished group of academic elites. She had become one of only nine women to be appointed Chair of an academic department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Her reaction was stunned, but her humble nature quickly appeared as that achievement truly set in. “I don’t revel in thinking I’ve made it,” she said, “but I feel incredibly privileged.”
Armed with a lengthy list of goals for her time as Chair of the Orthopedics department, Dr. Burger has not wasted any time getting comfortable. “I haven’t been this excited since medical school, I have to tell myself to slow down,” she laughs. Dedicated to bringing abundance to the department; national recognition and a Center of Excellence designation are among her top priorities. Along with filling gaps she’s found in departments needs and pushing the research program into new territory. She wants the world to know that "when you come here, you see the best of the best in all services that orthopedics has to offer. We are the on the cusp of transforming our field with cutting edge research and new treatments.”
She is just as focused on enhancing the academic mission of the department as she is its clinical vision. Dr. Burger has committed to working with the School of Medicine and the Dean on his vision to improve how departments teach and communicate with the coming generations of students and residents. She echoes the observation that, “it’s a new era, students are more technologically engaged now and we have to get on board with that.” Noting that residents enter departments after spending their entire youth pushing to be on top in every facet of their world. There’s a need for teaching how to stay engaged with life’s journey and maintain the delicate balance to avoid burnout. “Life is not a sprint”, she adds, “I want them to understand taking 5 minutes to experience life, won’t put them out of the race of achieving.”
Her own teaching methods reflect her past experiences. The hard shell physicians tend to develop over time, melts away when she’s engaged with patients. She loves going to clinic. “You have to connect with them on a different level. Medicine is hard. I try to be honest and transparent”, she says. Teaching residents to slow down and practice medicine with common sense and compassion is one of her pillars of teaching. Stressing they not always rely on tests and diagnostics but see the patient holistically and understand the disease process. Dr. Burger has a very personal familiarity with knowing what it’s like to be the patient facing a diagnosis that can easily bring someone to their knees. Having been paralyzed after a fall and again becoming a patient when she battled breast cancer, she has learned what it is her patients truly need. That is what she’s trying to teach others.
There’s no mistaking the true passion she carries for her work and the department. At the end, when she looks back she wants to have the inner satisfaction to know she’s made a difference, no recognition needed. Whether it be in her patient’s or colleague’s lives, the field of medicine, or simply teaching; the knowledge to know she made a difference during the life she was afforded is the ultimate goal. But as quickly as we looked forward, we’re back to the present. She doesn’t want to look too far ahead. She doesn’t know what’s around the corner. But one thing she does know with certainty, she’ll continue to say yes to whatever opportunity comes next.