When Dr. Nancy Anderson and her husband Alistair came to Bella Coola in 1989, a “working holiday” was what they had in mind. With a new daughter and several years experience in Calgary under their belt, the two young GP’s were looking for a new type of practice.
“I ate most of my meals in the car,” she shares. “We had a young daughter and it was hectic, I was working between three different hospitals in Calgary, and we were looking for a change.”
Deciding to make a move to such a remote community would be daunting for some, but having decided become a doctor at age 13, Anderson was used to facing obstacles.
“My mother was a nurse and I used to wait up for her to come off night shift so she could share her stories with me,” Anderson recalls. “I found it fascinating, and knew I wanted to get into medicine. I was 13 years old when I made the decision to pursue it.”
But the path to medical school wasn’t easy. Anderson, one of four children, was raised in Ontario and graduated there with plans to attend McMaster on a scholarship. Her parents, however, decided to move out to B.C. with plans to build a sailboat. She found herself along for the ride, ending up in French Creek on Vancouver Island, with the sailboat taking much longer than expected.
“It was supposed to be a year but it ended up much longer,” she said. “It really complicated my life, as during that time I was still trying to get into school for my undergrad, but B.C. decided I wasn’t a resident and so did Ontario, so no universities would accept me.”
Anderson put school on hold for a while and sailed to Mexico with her parents and two other siblings once the boat was complete, but the goal was still firmly in place.
Once the trip was over she went on to complete her undergrad in Biology at McMaster, but the next step proved to be equally as challenging.
“In those days women couldn’t get bank loans to go to med school,” she explained. “I went through countless interviews, often being asked how I would manage the career if I decided to get married or have children. I think people often don’t realize how things have evolved since those days!”
Anderson was soon accepted into an intensive three-year program in Calgary, but still lacked the funds to pay for it. A new option then presented itself: the Canadian military. So she joined up.
“It was a really good option for me at the time,” she recalls. “The military trained us Medical Officers, and in exchange for our training we were required to serve three years.”
Her husband Alistair joined as well, and the pair completed their training together. Having been stationed last on the west coast, they requested to stay there, or perhaps to be transferred to the east coast, as they’d never been.
“They sent us to Winnipeg,” she remembers, laughing. “But we were really lucky at the time because Canada was in a very active peace-keeping role, so there was no real danger of conflict, and we received very good training during our service. I don’t regret the choice at all, in fact I now remember it quite fondly.”
They eventually settled back in Calgary with their first daughter, and began the busy lives of two young doctors. Anderson took a real interest in obstetrics, and began understudying with local specialists and GP’s in the area. It turned out to be a perfect fit for their move west to Bella Coola.
While the two were excited to begin a new chapter in their careers at the Bella Coola General Hospital and Clinic, Anderson describes the experience of remote medicine as both intensely challenging and rewarding, but also terrifying.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize the challenges of rural medicine,” she says. “It takes a certain type of person to face the obstacles of working in such an isolated location.”
Unlike their urban counterparts, rural doctors do not have access to specialists or specialized equipment to deal with situations that arise. It’s up to them to be the “jack of all trades” when it comes to medicine, and they require a real willingness to face whatever arises.
Fortunately for Anderson, her love of obstetrics turned out to be just what the Valley needed. It is probably this role for which she is remembered most fondly, as she was the caregiver for hundreds of local women during their pregnancies and through their childbirth.
“I did a whole year of surgery in the military, which gave me the confidence and experience to offer C-sections,” she said. “Many people don’t realize this but we were the smallest community in all of Canada offering C-sections, and we had a very low rate, about eight percent, compared to the urban centres which average about 20 percent.”
Although disappointed that birthing services are no longer offered in the community, Anderson says the situation is complicated. The team that was able to offer C-sections has mostly retired, and the weather dictates whether flights out are even possible. This combination of factors and more simply makes birthing a risk no one will take, and unless things change it’s likely to remain this way.
“Nobody is willing to risk a fetal or maternal death,” Anderson said. “We did between 20 and 40 deliveries a year when we had the right team, but that makes all the difference.”
Another aspect of medicine she really cared about turned out to be palliative care.
“Palliative care is another area where your presence can really make a difference,” she explained. “It’s less about trying to ‘fix’ things and more about focusing on the person’s choices and comfort.”
Retired now since 2008, she describes the departure from the clinic and hospital where she and her husband served for over 20 years as less than perfect, but remains satisfied with their decision.
“As we neared retirement age we had requested that Vancouver Coastal Health change some of the working conditions to attract new physicians, particularly altering the on-call schedule to match that of the rest of the province,” said Anderson. “Unfortunately they refused to listen and we ended up resigning, which was upsetting. However, after a year they did finally come around and implemented our recommendations.”
Now having spent 25 years in Bella Coola, Anderson says that she remains astonished at the level of care delivered through our tiny hospital, crediting the outstanding individuals for their dedication to the community and their positions.
“I’d really like people to understand how special these services are,” she said. “People like Pat Lenci, Donna Ratcliff, Barb Cornish, the Schimdts and many others, they are the dedicated individuals that have the innovation and talent to maintain this level of care.”
It is precisely this type of dedication that the Rural Coordination Centre of BC (RCCbc) has recognized with its award to Dr. Anderson for Excellence in Rural Medicine at their annual conference – the Rural Emergency Continuum of Care.
The five chosen physicians were honoured for their “outstanding service, their facilitation of best clinical practices, their role as opinion leaders in their communities, and their personal and professional excellence in rural medicine” at an awards ceremony in Penticton last May.
“Nancy has been an excellent role model for dozens of young women locums and residents in rural medicine,” said her coworker, Dr. Harvey Thommasen. “I have spoken with many female doctors, including my own daughter, who cite her as an inspiration for pursuing rural medicine.”
Although she still does locums, these days you are able to find Nancy thoroughly enjoying herself – her many hobbies keep her busy. Gardening, horseback riding, and spending time with her grandchildren top her list.
“I am really enjoying my life,” she shares. “I feel really fortunate to have chosen such an amazing career and ended up in community I love.”