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A Mother’s Day “THANKS to my MOM”!

karen tiiu

Dr. Karen Horton and her MOM Tiiu

I am the daughter of a Surgeon and a Scientist.  My father Ulo Ambus is a recently retired Breast Surgeon and Surgical Oncologist who spent 30 years at the University of Toronto caring for breast cancer patients.  He is one of the reasons I chose to become a Plastic Surgeon dedicated to caring for women facing breast cancer and striving to make their cancer journey a more positive one.

My mother Tiiu was a PhD graduate in Biochemistry from before I was born; she took some time off to raise her three daughters, and then returned to school to obtain additional degrees in Clinical Biochemistry and a Master of Science in Public Health, educating the public in Ontario about the dangers of smoking and other public health issues.  Tiiu now is also retired and selflessly volunteers her time and energy to families and children who are facing end-of-life issues, being recognized for over 10 years of service in a 2010 publication.

When I was growing up, my mother was my hero and my role model.  She instilled in me one of the most important lessons I think I could have received as an impressionable, driven and motivated young woman:  “Dear, you can be ANYTHING you want in life EXCEPT for a Daddy”.  And isn’t that true!

My mother did not encourage her daughters to pursue “stereotypically female” careers, instead encouraging us to excel at academics, to follow our interests in school and in extracurricular activities.  For me, that was math, science and art.  We were never made to feel that being female was a disadvantage in school or when considering our education and potential career opportunities.  Instead, Tiiu encouraged my sisters Ingrid, Lisa and I to use our brains, our minds, creativity and drive to help others in the best way we could.

My sisters and I learned from our Mom was that being a woman did not in any way limit or hinder our career opportunities and instead could be an advantage.

ambus sisters cottage

Dr. Karen Horton with her sisters Ingrid Ambus and Lisa Ambus at the Horton family summer cottage, celebrating Karen’s 2005 graduation in Plastic Surgery from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

My sisters Ingrid and Lisa are also caregivers and scientists in their own ways.  Ingrid is a Genetic Counselor at North York General Hospital in Toronto, caring for BRCA+ women and families who carry genes that predispose to disease.  Ingrid is also a mother of twins!  Lisa is a Forestry & MSc graduate who negotiates Aboriginal relations and reconciliation with the environment in the very northern town of Smithers, British Columbia. Being female was not an issue for me during high school, undergraduate education, a Masters in Cancer Research or in my Medical and Surgical training.

It was only ONCE that my gender was brought to my attention, interestingly by a senior Orthopedic Surgeon with whom I was doing a two-week elective to learn about this surgical sub-specialty.  I couldn’t figure out why I was being treated differently than the other Medical Students in the operating room, all of whom were male.  The Scrub Nurse in the O.R. informed me “Oh, he’s just flirting with you because you’re a young blonde distraction”.  I was shocked but brought into reality that not all my peers, nor the public, might think of me the same way that I thought of myself.  On occasion, your gender DOES matter, for better or for worse.

I took that experience in stride, and continued on with my surgical training in Plastic Surgery with my eyes wide open.  I was only one of four female Residents in Canada training in Plastic Surgery for my 5-year program, with an all-male Plastic Surgery Faculty at the University of Manitoba and also at the Buncke Clinic for my Microsurgery Fellowship.  Fortunately, I did not have many other experiences where I was made to “feel female” rather than a hardworking, eager and determined Plastic Surgery Resident.

Having been inspired by my mother, I did not consider gender being of importance in becoming the best Plastic Surgeon I could be.  

Now, I have been in private practice for nearly 8 years and many of my patients seek me out specifically because I am a woman Plastic Surgeon.  Caring for breast cancer patients and offering advanced breast reconstruction techniques, performing Mommy Makeovers for my fellow mothers and moms of twins enables me to best use my hands, my brains, my artistic ability and my innate drive to help others achieve their personal goals for surgery.

Being a Plastic Surgeon is the best job in the world!  

The four Ambus women in 2005 – we are due for an updated photo-op when we all see each other again this summer 2014!

So, THANKS TO OUR MOM Tiiu!  We love you!



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Dr. Karen M. Horton, M.D. - Plastic Surgery, Physicians & Surgeons - Medical-M.D., San Francisco, CA