City & Politics

Paths of life: A Calgary physician reflects

I first met Erin Brennand Banerjee in an Edmonton hotel in 1995. I was on a trip out west with my parents. We were both 15, with ruddy cheeks and doc marten’s boots. For months we had collaborated on a zine about punk rock and boys and escaping the doldrums of teenage ennui. We fell out of touch due to distance (I lived in Northern Ontario) and the heady whirlwind of growing up.

A decade and a half later, I would see her on Facebook, a little older but looking very much the same. She was now married, a doctor, and living in Calgary. Facebook’s timeline, with its cutesy minimization of the trajectory of life, left gaps. Everyone walks their own path. Some careen into despair, others muck through adversity and make it to the other side – happy in life and fulfilled. I wanted to know more about the Erin I missed all those years. I called her up. She is now an OB/GYN, living in Calgary with her dogs and her husband. She is completing her fellowship in urogynecology this year.

“Throughout medicine I knew I wanted to be a doctor but I didn’t know what kind. I just used my enthusiasm as a guide for where I should go. I knew I wanted to work with my hands and be surgical but I also wanted to have somewhat longer lasting relationships with patients. I was considering general surgery as a career path, but as a medical student it seemed to me that surgeons would see patients to perform a specific operation and would not see the patient in long term follow-up. I was drawn to Obstetrics & Gynecology because there was the opportunity to see women throughout an entire pregnancy, and often they return to their physicians to be cared for in future pregnancies. I really liked the idea of seeing patients over a span of months to years contributing to their health and having a meaningful doctor-patient relationship with them. When I got to urogynecology, I was so in love with the patient population. For the most part, they’re women who are at that certain age who have gone through menopause and are more interested in their body and getting their health back on track. They are well read around their medical conditions, they’re really engaged and interested.”

“I also saw it as an area of medicine where you could really advocate for women’s rights. During medical school a lot of my extra curricular activities were centered around human rights issues, and those interests definitely pulled me toward obstetrics & gynecology.” She considers herself a feminist – a veritable essential to be involved with women’s health.

From her formative years as a suburban teenage girl – going to all-ages shows and making riot grrl fanzines – perhaps such a career choice doesn’t come as much of a shock. The Londonderry area of North Edmonton wasn’t the apex of excitement. “My idea of fun was going to all-ages shows, it prompted me to start my own zine. I was looking for my own outlet because I didn’t feel there was a lot going on in Edmonton at that time. Particularly being in the north side, I felt sort of disconnected from the arts and culture scene. I was a little bit bored and restless so that lead me to checking out local bands, bands coming from Vancouver… it was something to do rather than hang out at the mall like many of my classmates.”

An avid reader, she actually liked school. She always knew she wanted to become a physician. In pre-med classes at U of A, she was plunged headlong into campus life. She relished her classes and her connections with peers.

Just as she was debating her options on where to attend medical school, she was slapped with devastating news: her dad was diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, her priority was to remain in Edmonton and spend as much time with him as possible.

“In my third year at medical school he passed away. That was a huge challenge. Just dealing with that; and also having the energy to keep going in medicine. The way the curriculum is set, you can’t set your own pace, you have to just keep going. There’s no room for breaks. The faculty of medicine was incredibly supportive, and they gave me as much time off as they could, about a week. I don’t think in a normal situation anybody would expect a child to go back to work or school within seven days, but anything longer would have resulted in me falling behind in medical school.”

Despite this, she managed to finish medical school and went on to do her residency as an OB/GYN in Calgary. She is in the midst of completing her fellowship – an additional 2 years of training in urogynecology.

She packed up her life in Edmonton and embraced the move to Calgary. “Thankfully when you’re starting residency, there are a lot of people who are new to the city so it’s pretty easy to make friends because you’re all in the same situation.”

“I really love the city, I love the area I live in.” She loves being able to walk everywhere, using her car only to get to work. It’s far removed from the driving culture of suburban Edmonton. Although she contends that traffic in Calgary is a abomination. The city’s population has multiplied in the past few decades at too quick a clip for transit infrastructure to keep up with. A quick fifteen minute jaunt can easily bloat to a 45 minute drive at peak times.

“I live in Inglewood which is just east of downtown. Its my favorite part of Calgary.” Inglewood is an an older enclave that has recently undergone a renaissance. It is morphing into a vibrant pastiche of eclectic cafes, cultural activities and young families & professionals.

“I can be walking my dogs along the river path in less than 2 minutes from leaving my front door. I have a favorite cafe in the neighbourhood, Gravity. There’s a real community feeling here – for example, the owner of the cafe will recognize me and ask if I’m coming off call or going on to call. It’s a great feeling in this part of Calgary. There’s a lot of energy here.”

Her neighborhood is a necessary reprieve from the rigors of her work life. When she first started out, she would work anywhere from fifty to one-hundred hours a week. She has treated women as old as 100 and as young as teenagers. The demands are intense. She relied heavily on her peers for support. “It’s a bit like the army, you can’t get through without your whole squad.” When they saw evidence of the other nearing burnout, they would step in to assist where possible.

“You learn to sleep wherever you’re given the opportunity to sleep – at anytime, anywhere. I think for most people for the first few years of residency you do have an unhealthy work- life balance. So the idea of fun and unwinding is simply being at home and being able to take care of yourself and go to the grocery store and maybe watch a movie…you’re not really doing a lot that’s exciting.”

“There is no typical day. Every day is distinctly different, and that’s great for me. Monotony really grates on me.” She may be in the operating room, working until all the procedures are completed. Or it may be a day of clinics or minor procedures. “Things are fairly scheduled. I probably have a slightly obsessive personality type,” she laughs. “Medicine has likely allowed me to indulge that to the extreme.”

Occasionally, patients may take issue with her youthful appearance and question her level of experience. “When this happens, I find that once I’ve spent some time talking to them and they get a sense of who I am, the wall comes down really quickly. If it doesn’t, all can do for is ask if they want to see someone else and facilitate that for them. I’ve never it personally because its their body, and they need to feel comfortable with the person looking after them. ”

There are the moments, of course, that put everything into laser focus. When you know for certain that you are on the right path. She recalls one incident in particular.

“I was on home call and getting ready to go to yoga, I had my yoga pants on and the resident paged me saying there was a woman in the ER with no blood pressure. The emergency doctor had scanned her abdomen and found that it was full of blood, in keeping with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. She would have died if she had stayed home any longer. Her little boy had actually called the ambulance.” Erin only briefly met the patient before she was whisked into the operating room, where the bleeding was controlled. The next day, she was able to speak to the patient in detail and explain what had happened in surgery.They wouldn’t speak again until the post-op visit, around Christmas time.

“They definitely didn’t have a lot of money but they brought me a Christmas present. They’re not Christian – they did not celebrate Christmas – but they brought me a Christmas present. And the little boy had written me this little card that said ‘Thank You for saving my mom’s life. I want to grow up to be a doctor like you.’ I just started crying. Something like that is what gets you through all the rough patches in medicine.”

Her advice to anyone starting out in medicine is to “lay the foundations for your path out – early. There’s a lot of sacrifice involved in medicine but if you plan early it can make the path easier. When you’re in residency it’s easy to just start counting the days until your training is done, but it’s important to just enjoy the training and the experience along the way. By allowing us to learn medicine on them, their bodies – patients are giving us a real gift.”


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Spectator Tribune.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson.

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