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“I remember that day vividly” – moving on from my medical practice to make a difference

March 14th, 2014. I remember that day vividly. It’s the day I retired from my medical practice and 26 years as a family physician. Through each of the day’s appointments it seemed all so surreal for me. There was a blur of all my patients and my colleagues running through my mind. And then, all at once, I was saying goodbye to my last patient; gathered up my coat, and I recall walking out the door thinking, “I’ve been serving the community for so many years and this door will be closing behind me.” I recall staring back at the door as I climbed into my car.

The decision to leave my Kanata group practice had been coming for many months. Dad had health problems and we were trying every way to keep him at home. Around Thanksgiving he fell and there was a crisis and we needed to admit Dad to a long term care home. We had to take the first bed available in the City and it happened to be downtown. My Mom and Dad had been together for nearly 60 years and this was very hard on her… she was trying to cope with all the changes. And she felt stressed getting downtown when we lived in the west end. My siblings and I all had active medical careers and we tried our best to help. But it was clear to me that I needed to step away from what I was doing and help my parents. I recognized the importance for my Mom to be with Dad as much as possible.

So the door might have closed on my medical practice, but I felt good being able to be there for my family. That time with Mom and Dad was very special. I was fortunate to have it. Dad remained in the care of that home for months and he passed January 2, 2015.

Fast forward to today, and March 14th has become an important anniversary day for me, especially with the responsibilities I now hold.  As one is prone to do on anniversaries, I look back at certain moments in my life that have proven to be formidable experiences for me.

I have wonderful memories of my family life growing up in Kanata. From an early age, it seems, I was enjoying being with and helping seniors. My grandmother, would at times, live with us and I remember the fun the two of us had when I would run down our hall from the bedrooms into the living room pushing her in her wheelchair. She loved those rides and laughed and laughed. Grandma would call it her “zoomy rides.” She was in her mid-eighties; I was nine.

Then there was my first summer working when I helped an elderly neighbour who couldn’t manage anymore, and was waiting to get into a seniors home. This was 40-some years ago, and people needed to wait to get into a home. I was 14 years old and it was the summer I was getting my credentials for being a swimming instructor and lifeguard. I remember riding my bike to her seniors’ apartment to help her with her meals. I would help her with food preparation and sit with her. She liked to talk about recipes and baking and we’d chat through the meal and I would help with cleaning up afterwards. I recall thinking how long the days would be sitting alone in a house and how important those lunches were to have someone to talk with and share some moments in a day. I went to her apartment through the summer and for months, after school started, I would go over at dinner hour to see her with a prepared meal Mom had made. She eventually did get into a home.

Just about this time, I began volunteering at the Queensway Carleton Hospital. I would have been 17 when I started. It was the new hospital in the west end and I thought volunteer experience may help me in the future. Obviously, as a teenage volunteer, I wasn’t involved in a major way but I do remember that sense of relief on people’s faces when the nurses and staff would attend to their emergencies.  

I went to University of Ottawa and then went to medical school there from ‘82 to ‘86. One memory that has stuck with me through those days was a good friend, who had many elderly relatives, telling me how important seniors’ care was and how she’d hope Canada’s health care system could be improved for seniors. When I entered into medical residency in Alberta, this thought moved me to taking courses in palliative care. I remember thinking that our medical system trains people to deliver babies and it is as important to be trained in programs that will help people at the end of their life.

So, it is remarkable that certain things in life come full circle. From those realizations I had as a medical student, through all the aging patients I cared for in my practice, to the days with my Dad, the importance of care for seniors has been a concern for me. As a doctor, I have always wanted to make a difference in this area. When I entered politics, one of my core issues was improving health care for seniors and being named Ontario’s first long term care minister was a distinct honour.

And that brings me to my thoughts about March 14th. This day doesn’t mark when I left my family medical practice as much as it marks the day I began to focus on how to improve health care, particularly for seniors. I am aware of the long standing issues that need to be addressed; I have experienced them in medical practice, while serving as a resident member on the Ottawa Board of Health, and in my own personal observations. There is a sacred duty to care for our seniors. The aging generations have worked to provide such a wonderful society for which we all should be grateful. From my observations, it is most important to extend compassion and companionship, to respect each individual and the health care they require, and to provide a welcoming, caring environment where each person may enjoy family and others’ company, and live out their days.

I recall riding in the back seat of the family car and Dad was telling us about how our community must begin to prepare for the aging population. He talked of the importance of meeting the needs of our seniors. This was the 1970’s and I was nine. I was listening then, and I hear my Dad’s voice still.