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Meeting with students brings back memories for N.B. psychiatrist Dr. David Duncan

A meeting with University of Saskatchewan medical students brought back memories for Dr. David Duncan - memories of the time he was a young medical student looking for some direction to his life.

About 10 students met Dr. Duncan at the 103-year-old Saskatchewan Hospital in North Battleford on February 21 during an SMA Roadmap Specialists Tour, organized by the psychiatry student interest group.

Dr. Duncan shared his experiences at the mental hospital, which will close this year when a huge new $400-million hospital opens right next door.

“I don’t know how many of you will end up in psychiatry or want to work in a hospital like this, but you should at least know about it,” Dr. Duncan told the students.

He shared the story of how he ended up in psychiatry. After being selected for a 250-member medical school class based solely on his Grade 12 marks, he felt aimless, wondering where he could fit within the medical system. Surgery did not hold any attraction.

“Psychiatry came along and for me, it made sense because when I went into medicine I was going to be a healer, a carer, a scientist. All I did up to fourth-year medical school was cut up dead bodies, take samples of feces and spread them on agar plates and get shunted away from the clinical work by busy doctors who didn’t have time,” he said.

“What saved me was we went out to a hospital very much like this and they took us to the admission ward and they locked us in with the patients,” he said.

He was taken to a room and told to go talk to a young man with manic depression, as in have a conversation.

“It was just so interesting. I thought this is what it’s supposed to be like. This is what I’ve been heading for all this time. This is a person talking to me and I’m listening. Patients don’t want you necessarily to be smart. They want you to be kind. They want you to be non-judgmental and they want you to talk to them like they’re a real person.

“For me psychiatry was a crystallization of all the expectations I had when I went to medical school. Finally this is what it was about. I needed to use my brain, I needed to be able to communicate, I needed to think on the fly, I needed to be able to listen and think at the same time, and I needed at the end for it to make sense,” Dr. Duncan said.

“Psychiatric patients are, in essence, just people like us, and none of us are guaranteed immunity from emotional upsets, stress or even the experience of having unusual thoughts. Psychiatry seemed to me to be, if you are willing to listen, you’re willing to withhold judgment, and if you’re willing to be a comfort to a person in their moment of greatest need, you will get an essence of what it really is supposed to mean to be a doctor. That’s what seduced me into the field.”

A tour of the old Saskatchewan Hospital was enlightening for many of the students on the SMA Roadmap tour, some of whom are considering psychiatry as a specialty.

Rachel Thera, a second-year medical student from Saskatoon, is also president of the psychiatry student interest group on campus. The Roadmap trip solidified her interest in psychiatry, although the hospital itself was not as foreboding as she thought it would be.

“I had heard that the actual building was going to be ominous and kind of frightening, and I actually thought it was not that bad,” she said of the 1914 structure.

“I’d always thought the hospital provided a good opportunity for students who are interested in all disciplines to come and see what the major in-patient mental health facility in Saskatchewan looked like because it’s a good experience for any medical professional to know that that’s where people are sent, and to know what kind of services are available there and what people can expect from their stay there.”

Andriy Simko, a first-year student from Saskatoon, said he has been considering psychiatry as a specialty, and the Roadmap Tour tour made that option even more appealing.

“I wasn’t exposed very much to psychiatry as of yet so this was a really neat opportunity to see what’s happening in terms of mental health in Saskatchewan, how it’s being treated,” he said. “I had no clue that there was something like this was going on and it’s really cool how they’re investing into the kinds of solutions Dr. Duncan talked about.”

Qasim Hussain, a second-year student from Toronto, said while he is leaning toward being a generalist as opposed to specializing, psychiatric knowledge would be beneficial across a broad spectrum of fields, such as family and emergency medicine.

“I thought the tour was really, really eye-opening. Compared to other Roadmap tours it’s more a specialists’ tour and we saw a specialists’ facility. That was interesting because you don’t get exposed to that very much.”

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