Melissa and Chris Erickson move around their Yorktown kitchen in easy harmony as they prepare dinner for their three children. She readies the pot roast while he demonstrates expert skill in mincing garlic and chopping vegetables. "This wouldn't have happened during her residency. The hours were crazy," said Chris, tossing a carrot to Sniper, one of their two mixed-breed Labrador dogs.
The family moved to the Peninsula this fall for Melissa's job with Tidewater Orthopaedic Associates, where the 36-year-old is the area's first female
Melissa exudes a friendly charm that belies the intensity of her career path and the high stress nature of her job. "It's not easy, but it's doable," she said, emphasizing that it has required sacrifices along the way — by both her and her family. "We've made it work. Dedicating so much time it has to be something you love. You take a huge chunk of time out of your life. It's definitely a calling."
She considers herself fortunate to have met Chris, whom she describes as her best friend, early in her life. Both biology majors, they met on the first day of college at Trinity International University near their homes in Illinois and married a year later. Children followed quickly. Their daughter, Sam, is 16, and their two sons, Josiah and Caeden are 13 and 11, respectively.
They're somewhat nontraditional as a family, Melissa conceded, crediting Chris with his full support for her demanding job and his willingness to accommodate her career. Last year, it took her to the Mayo Clinic, while he stayed with the children in Durham. "They don't seem to have any severe bitterness about it," she said. Chris chipped in, "I think it was harder on her. I had the children with me." She noted that she had been unable to attend Sam's school soccer games, a sport that has influenced her own life considerably.
In college, the petite 5-foot-21/2-inch midfielder, already the mother of an infant, captained her team for two years. "I learned a lot about time management — you have about 11/2 days less than other students — about life, leadership and team work," she said. "It translates even now. I'm always dealing with teams. I understand and respect that everyone comes to the table with something."
In medical school, she continued playing but tore the anterior cruciate ligament, ACL, in her knee. It was that injury that pointed her toward orthopedics, when her surgeon suggested she look into the male-dominated field.
Originally thinking about pursuing pediatrics, Erickson was immediately enamored. "It combined all my interests. I like doing stuff with my hands, I like the pace and being in the operating room." she said. She found the spine most interesting, adding, "You either love it or hate it — most don't want to mess with it because it's so high risk. And the patients tend to be older and sicker."
She's also comfortable with power tools thanks to growing up around them and sharing a home improvement hobby with Chris. Before their move, the couple fixed up their old house, laying tile, installing doors and replacing fixtures.
The family has agreed — not always enthusiastically — on every move. For Chris it was hard to uproot himself from the life they'd built in Durham over the past six years. "The people there were like family," he said. Now settled for the foreseeable future, he's returning to school and hasn't ruled out medical school for himself. After graduation in Illinois, an interest in forensics took him into law enforcement as a police officer. In Durham, he changed course and started his own personal training business, while also competing in strong man contests, pulling as much as 52,000 pounds over 50 feet. "It did in my elbows," he said, ruefully. He hasn't competed for a year now, but he does still have "large tires and boulders" taking up space in their garage.
He conceded with a laugh that Melissa could have taken an easier route, but he has never doubted her goal. "I know my wife and she wouldn't have been happy in primary care. She knew what she wanted to pursue and had the drive and ability to do it," he said. Her absences have made the children more self-reliant, he said. The trio is absorbed in homework in an adjoining room, helping each other and occasionally asking their parents for information or a required signature.
This summer they took a family trip to India, visiting relatives and absorbing the culture. "It was great," said Sam, who was on crutches from her own ACL tear. "It gave the children a chance to see their heritage and experience something really different," said Melissa, whose father is a first-generation immigrant from Kerala. "The boys did really well too, eating Indian food every day. They adapt." Her mother is Filipino and likewise a first-generation immigrant and the only member of her family in the U.S. Now the Ericksons are setting their sights on a future visit to the Philippines.
On a day-to-day basis the couple works as a self-described tag team, constantly communicating, to make sure the children get to their sports and activities, Chris to his classes and Melissa to her work.
With her youthful appearance, Melissa often has to convince patients that she's old enough to be a physician. "I think people have hesitations, especially when they see my size. I do all the same reductions [manipulations] as my colleagues — if I wasn't athletic it might be a problem. I wouldn't go into it if I were very dainty," she said. "Traditionally you had to be a big strong man, but as long as you understand the techniques, you can do it."
She was drawn to the practice by the partners, its location and the partnership with Sentara's dedicated orthopedic hospital. "The partners really get along. They get together regularly outside the office, you can't fake that," she said. The couple liked the weather, the year-round outdoor lifestyle and being within reach of family. And the area, well equipped with specialty trained support staff, needed a spine surgeon.
Eva-Maria Klenner, CEO of Tidewater Orthopaedic Associates, is thrilled with the addition of a female surgeon to the practice. "You know how women are. She just really adds another dimension," she said.
Melissa's schedule is less hectic than her last few years of training, when she was always on call and constantly faced with the most complex and critical cases, but it's still never predictable. "You can't control everything," she said, revealing that she had been in the operating room until 9:30 p.m. the night before. Surgeries can last from as little as 30 minutes for a standard
"At the end of the day, this is what I loved," she said. "I love my patients. I love talking to them."
Tips for spine health
These tips are from spine surgeon Melissa Erickson
• Don't smoke
• Maintain a good weight
• Use good biomechanics and build core strength
• Participate in aerobic activity