Earlier this month, I heard of the passing of Ron de Burger. Father to my friend Paul and Father-in-Law to my BFF Angela, Ron was a mentor and a friend to me. We had many conversations over the years and in reflection, I realize how much he inspired a key part of my life. That time was also inspired by two other people, interconnected in a way I would have never predicted. As our nation celebrates Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip, I also remember my Medical School classmate Dr. Wanita Lopeter. It is with much gratitude that I take this moment to say thanks to them all.
Thank You Ron
Throughout my medical training, I always felt that we were doing too many things too late in the game, when our interventions were less effective. We were dealing with heart failure, end-stage lung disease, treating the end of life with prescribing pills, pills and more pills. To lower blood pressure, cholesterol, for all the pain. But there never seemed to be time to treat the root cause of ill health. We were making suggestions – “you need to eat more vegetables and less sugar” but it was useless. People KNOW they should eat right and exercise. That is not the issue. The truth is there are so many barriers to actually doing it – knowledge, time, education, money, and an environment built to hinder physical activity, polluted by our modern technologies.
My frustration grew and I voiced my interest in the bigger picture of health. My wise friend Paul suggested that I speak with his father Ron, a public health professional to see if I could get some insight into that field. It was the beginning of many conversations, where I expressed my aggravation and ideas, he reciprocated with knowledge, reality, and encouragement. It was a friendship that lasted many years and he inspired me to be the change that I wanted to see in the world.
On August 5th, 2016,
I heard the news of Ron’s sudden passing. He was fighting his second bout of an aggressive leukaemia and getting cutting edge gene therapy. He was so positive through it all. Spending time with his family between treatments. Taking everything that was handed to him in stride, constantly looking ahead.
There are no words for me to write to capture how much he meant to me. Just condolences for his family as we mourn, and gratitude to have had his presence in my life.
When you open up to grieve for one, it seems to all come out.
Thank You Wanita
It was January 2007, just after the holidays, and I was at work. A close friend was going through chemotherapy for a Stage 4 lymphoma, a medical school colleague of mine’s wife had been shot in New Orleans, and I was sitting at my desk at Shout, a medical clinic for street involved youth in Toronto. I was on my lunch break, checking lab results and emails.
That’s when I opened a letter from my Medical School Alumni specifically addressed to my class. “It is with sadness that we inform you of the passing of Dr. Wanita Lopeter”
Shock. The last person on earth I thought would go early.
Wanita was an athlete - fit, tall, and blonde. I remember reading that her sister had referred to her as “Wonder Wheeta” and Wonder Wanita she was.
Wanita was the first person I met at Med School. In the courtyard at our "Meet and Greet" BBQ. Both of us were standing around the food table, so we struck up a conversation.
“Hi! I am Shailla”
“Hi! I am Wanita”
“Where are you from? “
“I am from Edmonton”‘
“Alberta, great! Where did you go to school?”
She said "Harvard”
I didn’t even know Canadians could go to Harvard.
But Wanita did. And she went there on an athletic scholarship no less. There I was, just a brown girl from the Darkside (aka Dartmouth NS) not even sure being a doctor was what I 100% wanted to do. Just wanted to help people, get a secure job, and make a difference in the world. How naïve of me. As you can imagine, I immediately felt horribly inadequate. But there we were sharing a conversation about why we wanted to go to medical school. Imposter syndrome creeped in, and suddenly I questioned everything. Why was I here? Was I good enough to be here? Smart enough? Did I really even want to be here? It’s funny how self-doubt will make you question everything.
It was a feeling that came back to me many times in my training as I struggled to understand our health care system, how to work in it, my role as a physician and how to help people get healthy. It was an internal struggle, I faced it every day, whether I was working in the ER or in Moose Factory, or with Street Youth in inner-city Toronto, working with people who just needed a descent, safe home, a hot meal and societal acceptance of who they were and wanted to be.
I read the words in my email again. “We are sorry to inform of the passing of Dr. Wanita Lopeter”
When I got home that night I called a friend who was her roommate in residency. Wanita had a terminal form of brain cancer. She was diagnosed in Med School but kept it a secret from most of us as she continued with her studies and as our Class President. She did change her residency choice from Orthopedic Surgery to Family Medicine, which I just thought was because she had come to her senses. Now I knew why. Her whole family came to our graduation. They all knew. But my small family and I, sharing a table with them at our graduation dinner, had no idea.
Wanita finished her residency and got married to Mark, a person described as the love of her life. A friend of mine, who was married to a friend of her's, had attended her memorial service. He never knew her, but said that she sounded like an amazing person. She most certainly was.
When your friends are dying around you, you learn that there is no time like the present. I knew that I was frustrated with the system and burned out. I recognized that there were many gifts to being a physician and I was not ready to leave the profession. I was too invested. I wanted to make things better. I wanted to lead change. But I knew I needed the tools.
So, I decided to go back to school and study Public Health.
Inspired by Ron and Wanita, I applied to the Harvard, and I got in. I wish I could show you the Big Envelope my acceptance came in, but it was just an email. I was sure it was going to be rejection. Imagine my surprise.
You won’t believe how many people will tell you that going to Harvard is a mistake, that it is not a good school. The truth is no school is great, it is the students and their enthusiasm that makes it great. I also realize now that all those people either didn’t apply or didn’t get in. However, their negativity made me question whether it was the right move. I almost didn’t go. When my patients heard rumours that I might not go, they booked appointments in droves, hoping to influence me to change my mind. “You have to go! We will be fine! You can’t turn this opportunity down!” They were right.
So I packed up my life, put my stuff in storage, and moved to Boston to start the student life all over again. I think I may have glamourized my life as a student. Looking back, I seemed to remember the good times, the social life, the parties, the discussions, the growth. Not the limited income, the inability to afford to do the thing you really wanted to do (Hmm… maybe the first time around it was motivation to work hard, so that I could be financially secure).
Going back to school was hard. I mean – don’t get me wrong the people were fabulous! The social life was great! I met some of the most interesting and like-minded people I had ever met in the field of health. But the initial part – the no more income coming into my bank account was harder than I expected. More surprising to me though, was how much I missed the patients and how personally fulfilling it was to help people everyday.
Going back to school meant tests, assignments and stupid computer statistical programs. Now, I have to tell you, after I studied for and wrote my Emergency Medicine board exams, I promised myself No More! So having to spend time back in the library reading and writing papers, doing assignments that were, in my rebellious mind, irrelevant to the real issues, was not met well by my ego. And my ego got out of control sometimes, especially when I was confronted with the ridiculousness of American health care at that time.
Adjusting to life in the USA was another challenge. “Why is there sugar in my bread? How come I can’t buy Orange Pekoe here? Was that what you guys threw over that ship? What do you mean not all States have public vaccination programs? What kind of a country is this? The Republicans are arguing to get rid of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan? You don’t have curb side recycling and composting? I can buy a gun but not a beer without my ID to show I am over 21? What kind of country is this!” Nothing makes you feel more Canadian than when you are in the United States.
My perspective was not always met well by my American friends. It was the Bush years, and my critiques were not always welcome.
“Hey North, you’re South, shut your big mouth” They didn’t say it, but I could see it in their eyes. Yet, I had to say what I felt was real.
I was mad at myself, too. Once again I felt like I chose work over life, and it was my choice (a resentful feeling many of us in medicine probably struggle with). That maybe this was not the place I was supposed to be. But where was? Nova Scotia? Didn’t feel right. Could it have been Toronto? Boston I thought would be a mix of the two – being by the ocean and yet larger and more metropolitan. Well, maybe to visit. But to live there was another story. Truthfully, Boston just felt so wrong after having lived in such an inclusive place as Toronto. So I slugged through my first eight weeks, unhappy.
Thank You Gord
A few weeks before my term exams, my friend Don said that he just scored some Tragically Hip tickets on e-bay (an elusive time before StubHub) “At cost for Canadians” (Oh Stub Hub, if you could have been so ethical).
“Would you believe they're playing the Orpheum – it holds less than 3000 seats!”
The Hip were playing sold-out hockey arenas (10,000-20,000 people) at home. Don got two tickets on e-bay from a Canadian who could not go. She had two more tickets and I got them. I was supposed to have a friend visit that weekend – an avid fan. He would be so happy so I held it as a surprise, but he decided not to come. I was at first hurt but then so realistic about it as I already knew this was not a long term thing. Still missed the idea of home though.
But how cool was it going to be to see the Hip the Saturday night after my first set of exams? Just like old times – good times. Maybe this going back to school wasn’t so bad. My roommate from Switzerland came with me, and the ticket not lost on her. She had heard of the Tragically Hip as her boyfriend back in Switzerland was a big fan. So that was okay.
We got there early because Joel Plaskett and the Emergency were opening. No one (other than this transplanted Torontonian from Dartmouth) knew Joel in this theatre. And WE knew NO ONE at the concert. So with nothing to lose, I made my way to the front of the stage. I sang at the top of my lungs “I took the Dartmouth Ferry into the Town… Can I go Nowhere with You!” dancing like no one was watching. Except my roommate Isabelle - who took this picture.
Joel was watching. He thanked me for getting up and dancing, but the look on his face showed that he thought I was weird for being the only one. I don’t even think Joel would have done that for himself.
Then the Hip came on. I made sure to get right up front and center. It was incredible. The stage came just to above my waist.
We were all so close, close enough to touch.
So I did. At first I just poked Gord Downie’s foot with my finger. Yup - he was real and I could touch him. Then I laid my hand on his foot. I could feel the warmth through his boot.
Gord didn’t protest or pull back in fact he just looked down at me and smiled that wry Gord Downie-on-stage half smile.
I pulled back, fearing invasion of his privacy, but as the music continued and he was standing so close, I started to move my hands up his calf, slowly dancing as he sang. He looked into my eyes and smiled. He kept his leg there, and he kept singing so I kept going too.
And the little girl inside me screamed “eeeeeeeeeeee!!!!”
Gord went on that night to dance up a storm with his partner the microphone stand and his infamous white hanky.
Three quarters of the way into the show, I think he got bored with it and handed it to me. I accepted it, thinking I was just going to hold it for a while until he wanted it back. So I happily held it for him.
At the end of the show, he came back, I thought to get the mic stand back. I started to give him back the stand, but he said “No it’s your's” and then he gave me his smashed up microphone.
That was when I knew that I was right where I was supposed to be. In that moment, right there. That night in Boston. It changed my perspective and there was no looking back. I was no longer resentful of having to study again, or of leaving my life behind, and I began to look forward to all that was ahead on the path I chose.
I had a great time in school and got my confidence back, something that had been stripped away in my medical training. Then, I too, became a Harvard graduate, ready to take on the world and make it better place along side some of the most wonderful people I have ever met.
Later, I would be working in the neighbourhood in which Gord Downie lived. Changing the way we delivered primary care and loving my job for the first time in a long while. On my way walking back and forth to work, I would see Gord, the father, dropping his kids off at school. Sometimes on his bike, sometimes just walking down the street. He often looked preoccupied. Walking past, I respected his space and privacy as we both took in the broad view.
Once I caught his eye and smiled, he smiled back, and we kept walking. I wanted to thank him. Just once. Tell him that I was a girl who got the mic stand. That it meant so much to me at that time when I was questioning everything. That it grounded me. It got me through it and I never looked back.
Thank You Gord. It meant a lot to me. At time in my life inspired by my friend, who had the same cancer that has affected you. The connection, however loose, is not lost on me.
Gord, watching you on stage this week with The Hip, I see the love for you. I see the strength you have. The choice you are making to live life to the fullest, as it is. Like my brave friends before you. I wanted to say this as I didn’t get to say it to the others - Thank you.
May you and your family be safe and free from suffering. May the love you receive on this tour be great and sustaining. May you know that the band will play on through the music.
Every day in my job as a physician, I help people deal with stress and trying circumstances. Naturally the question “Why?” comes up. Often, I do not have an answer to that question. “It makes no sense how it makes no sense.” It doesn’t. It just doesn’t.
Yet it is what it is. There is no reason. I hope that if we can meet our experience with compassion, and turn towards it and allow it, whatever it is, it will somehow ease the suffering and help us move on, one day, towards acceptance. Then we have choices, choices to live as fully as we can, no matter what the circumstances.
Thank you for teaching me this Ron, Wanita, and Gord. Thank you for your courage and strength to face adversity head on. Thank you for your determination to keep going despite it all. Thank you for leading the way with such grace.
In Memory of Ron de Burger, donations maybe made to: the Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre Foundation, Hamilton Health Sciences Centre.
In Memory of Dr. Wanita Lopeter, donations maybe made to the Dr. Wanita Lopeter Memorial Scholarship at Dalhousie Medical School. Please Contact the Dalhousie Medical Alumni Association
In Support of Gord Downie and the Sunnybrook Hospital Foundation, donations may be made to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research
For more information on Brain Cancers, please visit braintumour.ca