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Nominated years ago in Canada's Top 40 under 40, Kellie Leitch - who is still under 40 - today becomes chief of surgery for a large hospital in one of this country's fastest-growing communities.

At 39, she takes on the post of department chief of surgical services for Lakeridge Health, which includes responsibility of surgical patients in hospitals in the Ontario communities of Oshawa, Bowmanville, Port Perry and Whitby.

"She's young to take on the leadership role," said Carol Herbert, Dean of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario. "It's not easy, it's a stretch to do all of these things."

In an interview yesterday, Dr. Leitch said that what helped shape her was daily dinner conversations with her parents.

Every evening at 6 p.m., she and her two siblings would sit down to dinner with their parents in their Fort McMurray home, in northern Alberta, no matter what other activity was taking place. There, they would talk about the need to do public service - her parents were both active in local community groups.

"I think that's really important for kids," said Dr. Leitch, who made the Top 40 under 40 at age 34. "I didn't appreciate it then, but I see it now. ... It's just so important to be grounded and to have feedback and support. It became a value structure that I tested everything against."

Her mother, Lynne, pressed the need for an academic base and encouraged her daughter to play team and individual sports. Her father, Kit, owned and operated a construction company and was the president of the local chamber of commerce decades ago.

Although the dinner conversations provided a solid base, her path to medicine, came in part out of tragedy: her mother died of breast cancer when Kellie was 18. At the time, the teen was considering other careers, including law, but after her mother's death, medicine held a special appeal.

"When I realized that someone I cared about a great deal could pass away at 46, it makes you focus that there's only so much time," she said. "Life is a valuable commodity."

Dr. Leitch became a pediatric orthopedic surgeon where, among other things, she focused on complex cases involving adolescents with cerebral palsy. Employing a series of operations and procedures on muscles, tendon and bone, she was able to improve the function of patients so that those in wheelchairs could stand and take steps in walkers. Others were able to take some independent steps, although still reliant on a walker or crutches.

"If you can take a child with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair and at least get [them]up and walking with a walker and doing things independently, it's overwhelmingly rewarding," she said. "I've had moms cry in my clinic because they are so excited that 'my child can participate with other kids.' They love it, they relish it, the kids themselves are so happy, so energetic."

Although she will take on the new role at Lakeridge, where pediatric cases tend to steer more to general orthopedics and trauma, Dr. Leitch will continue to operate at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. An MBA, she also hopes to improve working relationships and processes between administrators and health care providers.

"I truly believe we need to train individuals who are not just health care providers, but who have an interest in the health sector to understand each other, she said. "... Everything comes down to people and who's willing to lead and drive change."

Best friend Karin Schnarr, who is working on her doctorate in business, has known Dr. Leitch for almost two decades. She describes her as one of the smartest people she's ever met.

"She's very driven and uses her time well," Ms. Schnarr said. "Where I might go home and watch television, she's doing research, because she holds an academic appointment as well. She's amazingly great at time management."

Although she is wonderful at many things, there is one thing that Dr. Leitch has not mastered: cooking.

"She's bad, bad, bad at cooking," Ms. Schnarr said. "In terms of making a three-course dinner for Christmas, she leaves that to others."

She may leave it to others, but family and friends know they can count on her to do one thing: a master job of carving the turkey.