Dawson's Fingers

2010
Purdon, Mike

A few years ago, on a drizzly day in Seattle, my wife and I began on a path that would take me back home to Canada and through the little town of Burns Lake in Northern BC, where I spent a year working as a locum family physician. We began our journey as we sat and watched in horror, with our newborn son cradled in our arms, as a neurologist pointed to an MRI image of my wife’s brain and to the gracile Dawson’s fingers that were clutching her neurons and creating the frightening symptoms that had brought us to this expert in multiple sclerosis. In hearing the diagnosis, we were both suddenly launched from bliss, with our young family, to places unknown and foreboding.

In the months ahead, my wife bravely encouraged me to apply for a sabbatical year and pursue an adventure in service. She suggested that I look for an underserved town in British Columbia to give a year of our lives to, rather than whither in the face of her diagnosis. She knew that after years of teaching family medicine residents in Seattle that I had longed to come home to Canada and that I had envied the youthful passion for meaning that I would see in the work of the residents, but even I was surprised how soon we found ourselves in a tiny town in northern British Columbia, far from the urban academic environment that we had left behind.

I arrived for my first day of work at the Burns Lake Medical Clinic, in mid February in jeans, a thick sweater, heavy coat and boots, and was quickly immersed in the culture of the clinic and the hospital. The place hummed with an all hands on deck urgency and the pace and complexity of the care was astounding. Over the next few months I was to learn that the pace never changed and that the hospital was no different, with the ill and the traumatized flowing through the door at a terrifying pace. Despite this, the physicians, nurses and staff were all calm and gentle and yet ferociously hard working in the service of the neighbors and friends and the hospital was like a gathering place for the exchange of goodness and warmth in the cold winter months. I worked as hard as I have ever worked in Burns Lake, but my soul had never felt so well rested. The work stretched my medical skills to new sizes and wove my family into the community. From the moment we arrived we were welcomed into the town as if born to it, despite our Americanism and all that I was asked to do was temporarily patch a hole in the fabric of the health care system that, sadly, tears again and again, each time a physician gathers his family and moves to somewhere shinier and warmer and less interesting.

When we finally left, with an undeniable ache in our hearts, we set off for Seattle with our van nearly bursting with gifts from patients and friends, including a magnificent rug, woven in a remote village of Afghanistan, a moose carved from a single block of pine by an elderly German patient, a pair of moccasins stitched and beaded by a Native elder, a bugwood bowl, turned by a local artisan, and a beautiful Cheslatta paddle. We eventually traversed half the province longitudinally, taking advantage of great weather, arriving at the border at 1:00 am, where a muscled DHS agent tried to intimidate us with the shock and awe of his power as we listed the gifts that we had received. Little did he know that we were busily importing things even more valuable-memories of Canada, more subversive and joyful than he could have imagined.

I still miss the intense blue sky and the crystalline white trees, the dunes of wind swept snow on the frozen lake and the sparkling frost lit by the brilliant crescent moon, high in the night sky. The winter was cruel in its cold and its beauty as we left. Thoughts of the smudgy filth of our car and of the way that our little rented house shuddered as the train passed in the night make me nostalgic now. I miss walking the cracked linoleum halls in the tired little hospital, with its 1982 “Best Ladies Auxiliary in Canada” plaque, and its fetid smells suggesting both the best and the worst of its times. The bulldozers will arrive soon and the touchstones of innumerable joys and tragedies will eventually be smashed and graded into the earth, to make way for a sparkling new hospital and I am not sure that I want to come back to see it. I loved the practical and durable beauty of Burns Lake and of its people and the way they rose above those things that are so important at the coast, like shiny paint, or computer networks, or even the need for a new facility to replace the worn out hospital.

As we left, I could see that we were all forever changed by my work in Burns Lake. For my wife and I, the time lasted only a moment, but a year is a long time in a little boy's life, and our three little boys each left with something elementally Canadian in their souls. Polite leadership, preternatural empathy and fearless joy all come to mind, but it is sad to think that, in time, all of their visual memories of the place may wash away in the tides of new experiences. Ironically, my American wife may now be the most Canadian of us all, with her ability to find dear friends amongst strangers, beauty in desolation and joy in the toughest of challenges. I hope that our sons will one day know that as she became a patient, at a time of great sadness and fear and newly aware of the fragility of life, she challenged me to find adventure and hope in an act of service that few people in perfect health would have considered. She left behind her home, her friends, her health-care, and all that was familiar and comforting, to allow us all to travel to a remote, unfamiliar community in search of the notions of service that my work requires. I want our boys to inherit and to remember her bravery, determination and sense of adventure, even though I know that, for now, it is much too early for them to even understand the sentiments that I hope they recall. My work as a family doctor in Burns Lake allowed us to enjoy what my wife now calls "the happiest year of our lives" and although it is now over, I know that the people of Burns Lake helped us to pry our selves free, forever, from the grasp of Dawson’s fingers.

Theme: Community | Communauté
Theme: Family | Famille
Theme: Health Care Delivery | Prestation des soins de santé
Theme: Physicians | Médecins

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.

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