Steve Burgess’ desire to be a doctor was fueled by a personal, life-changing experience. Burgess, 23, was born with a port wine birthmark on the left side of his face. He was often teased in elementary school. “An amazing physician made such a difference in my life,” said Burgess who at age 12 began laser treatments with Dr. Harvey Lui, a Vancouver dermatologist.
Burgess had some 22 laser treatments spanning six years—unprecedented at the time. The painful therapy successfully removed almost all signs of the purple discoloration. It also led to an enduring desire to become a dermatologist.
Like Tousignant, however, Burgess didn’t follow a direct path to his calling. He did his undergraduate degree in biology at UVic, specializing in genetics and cell biology. In his final year and after graduation he conducted research in the genetics of the fungus that causes Dutch Elm disease.
Even with that impressive record, Burgess didn’t get into medical school the first year he applied, missing an interview by only half a point. “I had many of the skills and experiences they were looking for but I didn’t know that I should detail them in he application, for example, telling them that I donate blood regularly. That in itself was worth a point.”
Harris had a similar experience. He, too, took two tries to get into medical school, despite having most of the qualities they were looking for the first time. “Writing a good application is a skill in itself,” he says, as Burgess nods in agreement.
Having so many skills, interests and aptitudes requires exceptional multi-tasking and time-management skills—exactly the skills needed in a highly demanding medical program. Most days start at 8 a.m. and the students are on the go often until late at night. Time is spent each week in videoconference lectures with colleagues at the other two sites, in small group learning sessions, and labs. They work one fternoon in the offices of local family doctors in Victoria and one afternoon at Royal Jubilee Hospital learning basic clinical skills, such as taking blood pressure and giving an injection.
The next four years will challenge all of their exceptional abilities—requiring them to absorb vast medical knowledge that is rapidly evolving. They will be working in smaller and isolated communities throughout Vancouver Island to get a taste of medicine away from a big urban centre. They will have clinical clerkship rotations through the specialties of anesthesia, dermatology, emergency medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopaedics, ophthalmology, pediatrics, psychiatry and surgery. Through it all, they will acquire the hands-on skills and knowledge to join the ranks of today’s medical healers.
“It is a really demanding program, but it is also really fascinating,” says Averil Russell, 24. Unlike the other four UVic grads, she didn’t get a science degree, opting for anthropology instead. It’s a route she feels has prepared her just as well. “Anthropology is all about the study of people, their physical characteristics, their societies and relationships. I think it is a great primer for medicine, because medicine is all about people too, particularly the situations or societal disparities that cause disease.” Russell did her honours research project on HIV infection in South Africa, gaining knowledge about AIDS that she’s already putting to use this year.
One of the key features of UBC’s medical education is called Problem-Based Learning (PBL). It’s a narrative, group approach to assimilating the knowledge to recognize and treat a huge array of diseases. Each Monday morning, students are provided with the symptoms and medical history of a patient. Over the week and working in teams, the students unravel the mystery behind the illness—learning the differential diagnosis, the way to administer and evaluate medical tests, and the types of therapies available. It’s like the real world of medicine where teams of health professionals deliver care for patients.
For the observer, what is most remarkable about this first group of students in the Island Medical Program is their congenial and co-operative nature. Any trace of the fierce application process is gone. The atmosphere is decidedly collegial. Patrizia Moccia, the newlywed, recalls the very first days of classes when her professors specifically made the point that while it was tough to get into medical school, now they were all colleagues. “The only thing that matters now is that, at the end of our training, we all emerge as good doctors.”
Anne Mullens is a Victoria-based writer specializing in health issues.
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