After graduating high school I followed two of my friends into Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). I remember early on one of my professors saying: “look to your right, look to your left, two of you won’t be here by the end of the year”.
By the end of the first term I was one of these two.
I was unhappy in engineering but did not know why. I went to U of S student counseling and who arranged aptitude and career preference testing. It turned out I scored above the 90th percentile for all the essential skill areas to be an engineer (e.g. visual spatial thinking, logic, math etc.). I realized that I was not unhappy because I did not have the prerequisite skills or aptitude to be a good engineer but probably because I did not want to be an engineer.
The career preference testing was even more interesting. My likes and dislikes were best matched to professions in the humanities and more specifically with those in religious professions (e.g. clergy, pastors, ministers). I had to do some serious thinking about this.
I withdrew, without failure, from engineering. I finished one course on Fortran computer programming (cool stuff).
I moved back home. I know, I was ahead of time as kids moving back home is more in vogue nowadays versus back then.
Noting what I wrote in the “Eddy-Stop Drinking” chapter about the downside of alcohol I had my own experiences in engineering. Engineering students are known for their drinking as expressed in their chant:
We are We are We are We are--
We are the engineers--
We can We can We can We can--
Demolish forty beers--
Drink rum Drink rum Drink rum all day--
and come along with us for--
We don't give a damn for any old man--
Who don't give a damn for us—
Well, one night a group of us “demolished” way too much Canadian Club rye and then I proceeded to eat some chicken that had gone bad (ironic given that I grew up in the “Chicken Capital”). I ended up with severe food poisoning and was admitted to hospital for IV hydration therapy. After this the mere smell of rye whiskey made me retch (reminds me of what happened in “A Clockwork Orange” where Alex was programmed to get sick when exposed to Beethoven’s 9th). I never liked beer (a good reason in and of itself to not be an engineering student) and after this episode whiskey was also out. I essentially stopped drinking after this.
I worked at the Co-op in Wynyard and took some time off to have ankle surgery to remove a bone chip from my ankle (the long name was osteochondritis dissecans of the dome of the talus). I was totally fine unless the bone chip shifted out of place and then I fell over in pain. Dr. Yong-Hing was my orthopedic surgeon and he did a fantastic job. I remain symptom and complication free to this day.
I never regret my time in engineering. Although I was there for a short time I have come to truly appreciate the problem solving approach that is drilled into engineers. It has been a blessing in my career(s) in medicine where rote learning and memorization only gets you so far and, as the cliché goes, "patients don't always read the textbooks".
After engineering my goal was getting into medicine. However, I realized that if I did not get into medicine I did not want to become a biochemist or microbiologist (my declared dual major stream). Laboratory bench work was not for me. After two years of undergrad science at the University of Saskatchewan I moved to Toronto in 1982 to study Environmental Health at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now called Ryerson University). The major job stream from this degree was a career as a Public Health Inspector now more commonly known as an Environmental Health Officer.
A small-town prairie boy moved to Toronto.
I moved with all my “stuff” in a hockey duffel bag and took buses and the subway (TTC) from the TO airport to the downtown Central YMCA (which was demolished in 1984 to build the new TO Police Headquarters). For $200/month I had a room at the Y which was right off Yonge street and a short walk to Ryerson. It was one of the best years of my life.
The Y was a vibrant place to live. I made many friends there as it was a hub for artists looking for work or in transit. There was one fellow at the end of the hall, who, in retrospect, was probably clinically paranoid, and he kept close tabs on everyone coming and going. This was a good thing and made me feel safer.
Street shot of the Toronto Central YMCA circa 1982
Front desk at the Y
I had small room to myself, and a few cockroaches. I had a dreary view as it faced inward to three other brick walls. I had access to the fitness facility and there was an adjacent cafeteria. I did not use either of these amenities to any great extent. Other than sleeping and some studying I did not spend much time in my room, so I did not need more space.
I loved living in TO in the early eighties. Ryerson was fun, the city was vibrant, I got a job at the pub on campus and I had many experiences which have shaped who I am today. These stories will have to wait for their own chapters yet to be written.
While at Ryerson I wrote my first op ed. YMCA’s were transitioning out of the “hotel/shelter” business to focus more on fitness and other social programs. Plans were being made for a new downtown Y with the current location being slated for demolition to build a new TO Police Headquarters. I wrote about the impact of this policy shift on various populations including students, those looking for work, transient workers, tourists and those who could not afford TO rental rates. There were some long stay tenants at the Y who were going to get the boot. The Y brass was not too happy with my editorial, but I suffered not much more than verbal rebuttals from them.
Despite loving TO and Ryerson, I applied to medicine and got in the next year in Saskatoon.
The University of Saskatchewan had a unique medical school program that was a minimum of 1 year pre-med and 5 years medicine versus the more traditional minimum of 2 years pre-med and 4 years of medicine. Yes, we did have some very young medical students. This was before the Doogie Howser TV Series (1989–1993).
This meant that the first year of medicine were basic sciences focused on human anatomy, physiology, genetics, biochemistry etc. SK has moved to the more traditional 2 and 4 year model (some medical schools in Canada, such as in Calgary and Hamilton, are pre med + 3 yeas full time).
It also meant that that we could take two elective courses outside of Medicine. I took Far Eastern Studies (Religious Studies) and Past Human Evolution (Anthropology) courses which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially the Eastern Studies course.
Med school is a bit of blur. There was a high volume of “stuff” to memorize and, regrettably, forget when we needed it three years later on the ward. When it came to managing patients, who had not necessarily “read the textbooks”, I really appreciated my six months of engineering for problem solving skills it taught me.
Academically I was in the middle of the pack and liked it that way. I did not have the desire to chase after the “top student” accolades. I wanted to have a life outside of medical school. In fact, I made a point of dating and socializing with non-health care types. I had the usual run of romantic relationships and breakups.
For one year I was responsible for coordinating the “Dean’s Lecture Series”. The goal was to get speakers from outside the Faculty of Medicine to present different perspectives on topical issues. For example, I brought in a philosopher to argue there was a god and the next week one to argue there wasn’t a god. For another lecture I brought in a jazz musician do discuss and play jazz on the piano. It was a very rewarding task and the lectures were well attended.
My last year of Medicine was in Regina. We had a choice of Saskatoon versus Regina and, as I had already spent 6 years ( including undergrad) in Saskatoon, I needed a change.
In our final years we were called JURSIs. This sounds like they were calling us a breed of cow. The full name is Junior Undergraduate Rotating Student Intern (JURSI) which makes more sense when you spell it out but is still idiomatic to SK (other idiomatic SK words and phrases : vi-co, bunnyhug, gotch/gitch, grids, pil, nuisance grounds and the “Jaw”).
Being a JURSI in Regina meant being first in line for many experiences which was not the case in Saskatoon. By the end of my final year I was job ready and proficient in an essential set of procedures for my internship/residency.
Photo of the Plains Hospital in Regina before it closed. (click on picture to go to source site)
Facade of the Regina General Hospital
There are many stories from these five years, but one sticks out.
I was working at the Plains Hospital (it closed in 1998 and converted into SIAST [Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology] ) and seeing a framer who developed a backache after sneezing while driving a tractor.
We did a simple chest x-ray. The news was not good. He had lung cancer which had spread to his bones and he actually broke a backbone (thoracic vertebrae) while sneezing.
This was the first patient that I had to deliver bad news to.
I sat with him on his bed which faced huge windows looking over a huge swath of farmland. It was fall and harvest was on. I shared the news. He was not surprised. We watched the combines for awhile.
It was a mixed blessing for him to watch the farm work out his window. He very much enjoyed it but was sad that his farming days were coming to an end.
I followed him along with his visits back the Plains until he passed in the ICU.
I learnt from this experience that people are generally stronger that you think they are, and it is best to compassionately tell patients what is going on up front.
I may add more stories along the way but this one has stuck with me for over three decades.
The next chapter. From Med School to Residency. Stop 1 Calgary.
If you want to see more unique SK phrases click below.