Identical twin plastic surgeons do double duty at St. Joseph’s Hospital
He presumably didn't know in the moment of his birth that he would grow up to be a doctor. But Matthew McRae came prepared, with his own second opinion. Brother Mark. And vice versa.
Mark backed him up, quite literally, following Matthew out of the womb seven minutes later.
The identical twins have been backing each other up ever since and these days they're back in the hospital — this time St. Joe's — performing vitally restorative operations and, from time to time, confusing nurses and patients. Sometimes even themselves.
"We share the same locker," says Mark, "and sometimes I'll just grab a lab coat quickly and notice later that it says Matthew (on the chest pocket ID pin)."
As in birth, Matthew arrived first, in July 2015; Mark followed not long after, first accepting a contract, then getting on full time at St. Joseph's Hospital, where they both do reconstructive plastic surgery of the most advanced kind.
Matthew does microsurgery, including the reconstruction, even reattachment, of hands, other extremities, and surgeries of the head and neck.
Mark does breast reconstruction for those who've undergone mastectomies, as well as craniofacial surgeries.
Often, when one has a daylong (or night-long) surgery, the other will help. They'll work together. It's common for surgeons to relieve each other during long operations. There's an obvious advantage to having two rested surgeons functioning in tandem. (And with Matt and Mark, who can tell the difference?)
Recently Matthew had an emergency hand operation that didn't start until midnight. He worked to three, then Mark relieved him for an hour and a half while he slept and replenished his energy. He knew he could use the support to get through the long procedure.
"You feel bad about waking someone up at 3 a.m., but not your brother," says Matthew.
"And you can't say no to your brother," adds Mark, who didn't hesitate.
He had not long before leaned on Matthew for the same. "It was his fifth wedding anniversary and his wife (Natalie) was pregnant," Mark says guiltily. So he owed him.
Mark and Matthew grew up in Etobicoke where their young lives revolved mostly around the consuming passion they shared for a certain game — no, not Operation. Hockey. Their older brother Peter, now a Toronto lawyer, excelled at the sport.
"We were always tagging along at the rinks," says Mark (who tells me he once sat next to David Cronenberg's daughter on a plane; somehow "Dead Ringers," the great Canadian director's psychological horror about twin doctors, didn't come up).
Matt and Mark excelled as well, moving up rapidly through the feeder system to the big leagues. They both won hockey scholarships at Cornell, where they took many pre-med courses and performed so well for Big Red they caught the eye of NHL scouts.
Mark was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets). Matt's hockey progress was interrupted by an injury. While laid up and over the course of an outreach trip to the Middle East, he felt the draw of a medical career take firm hold within him.
He applied to Yale. So did Mark, with the idea of deferring if accepted so he could play hockey at least a while longer. But several circumstances, including the hockey strike of 2004-2005, tipped Mark toward joining his brother right away. He didn't report for training that summer.
"Hockey had always been part of our identity," says Matt, "and when you do something so intensely and then suddenly stop," it is jarring.
What made the transition easier was that medical school and, in time, a specialization in plastic surgery were the "perfect new challenge." Also — and this seems counterintuitive — they actually found the pace of an Ivy League medical program a relief from the exhausting grind of practice, travel, play and study of a hockey scholarship.
So there they were, together again, and it was Mark this time who was first ... to cleave toward plastic surgery.
The appeal, says Mark, is "there's so much diversity. You operate on all age groups and all over the body." After Yale, they spent time apart, doing residencies and fellowships in different cities — San Francisco, New York City and elsewhere.
But just as compasses can't help but point north, Matt and Mark keep pulling back together, and together is where they belong, home, now here in Hamilton, at St. Joseph's where they extol the virtues of their colleagues throughout the hospital, surgeons like Drs. Ronen Avram, Carolyn Levis and Achilleas Thoma, support staff and many others.
Their colleagues are fond of the McRaes too, of course, and you should see what the brothers do for the St. Joe's hockey contingent at the annual Ontario doctors' tournament.
Ringers, bringing our game up to a whole new level.
BY JEFF MAHONEY. ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR.