North of 60: Memories of NMU

April 8, 2015 at 9:24 am


Clarke Wilkie [MD/77]

I was recently forwarded a touching letter from Clarke Wilkie [MD/77] highlighting his time with the J.A. Hildes Northern Medical Unit and its impact on his practice and his medical career. I, too, am very familiar with the ‘pull’ of the North and the satisfaction of northern medicine. Following are excerpts from Dr. Wilkie’s fascinating life story and recollections of the Northern Medical Unit as a student, resident and clinician:

“My first involvement with the Northern Medical Unit was a trip to Churchill with Dr. John Crispin, during my intern year in 1977. Amongst many other highlights was a dinner hosted by two young GP’s – Drs. Sharon Cohen and Brian Postl. Over the course of the next year I travelled with Dr. Crispin to Perry E Moore Hospital in Hodgson and to Norway House where I met members of the local Health Board and agreed to start work there as a GP/Anesthetist on January 1, 1979.

Norway House was a busy and exciting time. I recall accompanying medivacs to Winnipeg in a Cessna 185 on floats, patients coming to appointments in yawls and snow machines, challenging deliveries and emergency cases. I enjoyed travelling to make rounds in Pinaow Wachi nursing home in my canoe. During our two years there I had the opportunity to work with many wonderful people as patients, co-workers and colleagues.

During my 12.5 years as a family physician in Dauphin, I did not work with the NMU, but was approached by then Medical Services Branch to do fly-in clinics. I was often accompanied by a family practice resident and made trips to all of the communities in Manitoba’s North Zone with the exception of Nelson House.

Looking back, one realizes it was a great opportunity and challenge, but combined with a busy office and anesthesia, ICU, obstetrical and “ordinary” ER call in Dauphin, the work took a toll.

At the age of 40, I enrolled in the psychiatry residency program at the U of M. It was a big transition for our family and one for which I am thankful. During the final year of my residency, I was able to arrange a unique elective. I travelled with the NMU to Norway House three days monthly and worked with then U of M social worker and long-time friend Grant Queskekapow. I arranged tours of a variety of agencies and spent a week at Shawenequanape Kipichewan learning from elders and attending my first sweat lodge. I also was fortunate to accompany Dr. Keith Hildahl to Arviat, Rankin Inlet and Baker Lake. During my residency, there was a suicide crisis in Oxford House and I was approached by FNIHB to travel to the community. Along with Dr. Sharon Macdonald and Keith, I subsequently wrote a scientific article on the suicide cluster.

After finishing psychiatry training in 1997, I began work at Selkirk Mental Health Centre primarily with First Nation and Inuit patients. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to begin doing itinerant work with the NMU in Nunavut…and I have been going to Baker Lake ever since.

I was making as many as 12 trips to Nunavut in a year and had been attempting to establish itinerant psychiatric services in Cross Lake through the NMU. Soon we had as many as 15 patients at a time from Nunavut at SMHC. The reciprocal per diems funded the development of SMHC’s Aboriginal Program which has been a tremendous success. Also a number of psychiatric nurses from SMHC have moved to Nunavut to work fulltime.

There were numerous other requests for psychiatric services. Many of the residents whom I enjoyed teaching have gone on to work with the NMU and I am presently looking for others to take over the communities to which I provide services.

I began my career at the NMU, and after retiring from my fulltime job, am slowly winding down my career visiting communities with the J.A. Hildes Northern Medical Unit. I have enjoyed the work immensely and have come to treasure the relationship with the NMU. The support of my colleagues and the NMU staff, and particularly Lori Thiessen, has been tremendous. I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity which has played a significant role in my medical career.”

What are your favourite memories of working with the J.A. Hildes Northern Medical Unit?