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A wilderness camping adventure

Left: Dr. Robert Forsey, director of the NorFam program, prepares some trout for dinner. Right: An evening with Innu elders Francis and Elizabeth Penashue.

Since 1993, the Faculty of Medicine’s NorFam (Northern Family Medicine Education Program), based at the Labrador Health Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, has offered family medicine residents a seven-month rural practice rotation as part of their two-year program. A highlight of the experience is the annual wilderness camping trip. Contributor Sharon Gray joined this year’s group to experience three nights of outdoor camping.

Komatiks full behind Ski-doos, we set out in early February from Goose Bay across Lake Melville to the wilderness camping spot.

Our convoy was carrying outdoor gear and supplies for a three-day trip. The first day it’s 29 below and the rough ride on the lake emphasizes the freezing wind. The driver of the Ski-doo I’m on, an outdoor guide named Don Neuman, describes the ride as smooth. It’s my first time on a Ski-doo and I’m sticking to my description of rough.

We’re finally at the lake’s edge and it’s time to move swiftly to set up the main tent. Everyone pitches in, shovelling the site smooth, erecting the large cloth tent and gathering load after load of boughs to soften the frozen floor. I’m with the bough crew, and we go for the smaller, less woody boughs to make the sleeping surface as smooth as possible.

It doesn’t take long before the tent floor is thickly covered with boughs. Dr. Michael Jong, the senior physician at Goose Bay, has a fire blazing in a wood stove. Lunch sandwiches are pulled out and seared on the top of the stove. Some work, some eat, then reverse roles until everyone is ready to tackle the afternoon activities – setting rabbit traps, ice fishing and building quinzhees for those who plan to sleep outside the main tent.

A quinzhee looks like a combination of an igloo and a snow cave. The family medicine residents shovel snow in a pile, let it harden and then hollow it out to provide a sleeping space for one or two individuals. By learning how to construct this winter hut, the students are prepared for an emergency outdoor camping trip.

As the evening meal of caribou chili heats up, the members of the expedition learn about each other and settle in for the next few days.

“I wish we’d brought some jelly beans…” is a snatch of conversation – this group of well-educated young people are enjoying life at a childlike level. The smell of fir and spruce permeates the tent. Surrounded in a cocoon of boughs, the world is as peaceful as it can possibly be.

I take the opportunity to get to know the members of the expedition. Dr. Kris MacMahon is from Winnipeg and has been in Goose Bay for three weeks.

“I chose Memorial because I wanted to do rural medicine and this is the best program,” he said. “It’s certainly the most exotic and interesting residency program in Canada. I started the family medicine program in St. John’s and will be spending about one-third of my two-year program based in Goose Bay. I’m really looking forward to travelling outside of Goose Bay for remote medicine.”
After more than two decades in Goose Bay, Dr. Jong knows exactly what the attraction is. “You cannot fall in love with rural medicine unless you’ve been there.”

Dr. MacMahon adds, “I also feel I have something to prove, that I can survive these conditions.”

Dr. Meghan Daly is from Ottawa, and had not considered Memorial for her family medicine residency until she had an interview and “fell in love with the NorFam program.” After eight months she is still in love with the program. “It’s been a transformation for me and now I’m debating coming back to practice in the north.”

Dr. Melissa Langvin is a pediatric resident, in Goose Bay for a month’s rotation. “This program attracts a certain kind of person. If you think a week of wilderness camping sounds like a great idea, then you belong here.”

In terms of her education as a pediatrician, Dr. Langvin said the experience in Goose Bay has allowed her to see a wide variety of diseases and conditions that she probably wouldn’t have experienced elsewhere.

Dr. Colette Dawson, a graduate of Memorial, is in her second year of residency and is here for four months of the NorFam experience. “I’ve heard great things over the years about this program – you have lots of independence but with support and back-up. The teaching is excellent and I’ve had a good experience here.”

Sean Doherty, who grew up in Iqaluit, Nunavut, is a third-year student doing a one-month elective in Goose Bay. “The Arctic really appeals to me and this is the best approximation of what it would be like to practice there. I’m hoping to do the NorFam program after I finish my medical degree.”

Dr. Luke Hays did his medical degree in Vancouver and then decided he wanted to train in rural family practice. “I’m here mainly because of the NorFam program and it hasn’t let me down. The experience has been really varied – this is a place where you always have to maintain skills. And it’s a real benefit to medical practice to feel part of the community.”

Dr. John Barnhill is from southern Alberta and Ottawa. He has already done a residency in surgery but after working with Doctors without Borders in Nepal he realized he needed a better understanding of primary care. To help meet the demands of rural and northern practice, NorFam offers extra training in such specialist services as surgery, obstetrics, emergency medicine, intensive care and medical evacuation.

On the final night of the wilderness trip Elizabeth and Francis Penashue share their experiences of living on the land.

Camp breaks the next day and the group returns to Goose Bay, knowing each other a lot better and more confident in their wilderness skills.

Next week may bring a Medevac air ambulance trip to a coastal community, but whatever the experience brings these young doctors are eager to experience it.