Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021

In addition to a busy stand-up comedy and acting schedule, Russ Kennedy does a few shifts at a Vancouver walk-in-clinic.

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Second calling

When medicine alone isn’t enough, some MDs add a new passion to their work lives

The questioning began almost as soon as Dr Sam Gutman finished med school and started general practice. “I took a long-term locum in an office and after about two weeks I sat down and said to myself ‘Is that it? That’s what I’m going to do for the next 30 years? Come in every morning, see these people and go home at five o’clock?’”

It’s not an uncommon feeling. So what do you do when you realize medicine alone isn’t enough for you? For some physicians, fate intervenes and offers a way to channel a hobby into their profession. While some need to face burnout before they decide to grab the bull by the horns and add another chapter to their professional lives.

Here are four MDs who took on new challenges, and redefined who they were as physicians.

He will rock you

For Gutman, everything changed in 1993 when he received a call for help from a friend of a friend. “They said ‘can you come down to the Pacific Coliseum? Van Halen needs a doctor.’” Sober professional that he is, Gutman set himself straight to the task. “I called my sister and said ‘Guess what?! Guess what?! We’re going back stage for Van Halen!”

Since then the reputation of the Rock Doc has grown and he’s the go-to guy for performers visiting Vancouver. “These are high-level entertainers, going night after night, city after city, they never have the chance to see their family physician. There are 20,000 people waiting for this guy to sing and he has a stomach upset or has a sore throat or has a cold. And there are hundreds of thousands of dollars riding on this guy being able to perform at his best. It’s always a challenge to help these people do what they do and get them safely and effectively on stage.”

Last July, 40,000 people funnelled into Pemberton, just north of Whistler, for four days of rock, dust and debauchery for the Pemberton Music Festival. Gutman’s role, his “dream job,” was to put the medical support in place capable of handling the legions of performers and festival-goers.

He spent six months working out the plan for provisions, contingencies, equipment, personnel and logistics to match the occasion. “During the fest, we were the seventh largest city in BC,” he says. Never mind those in the crowd and on stage hell bent on destruction, he insists, “when you put that many people together in one place, things are going to happen.”

In winter, Gutman takes shifts in the Emergency Departments at Lion’s Gate Hospital in West Vancouver and St. Paul’s in downtown Vancouver and attends to the performers that come through town. As the summer events season approaches, he devotes more time to planning.

It keeps him busy and sane. “If I had worked full-time in a hospital, I would have retired by now and left medicine.” Rock Doc lets him reinvent himself and his profession. “I have the opportunity to provide what I consider to be the right resources in the right way to enable people to do what they want to do, to allow them to finish a marathon or to enjoy a rock show. And they are grateful for the help that they receive.”

It’s when he’s talking about the glamour of the business that he has to excuse himself to take a call: “It was a movie set calling me. Somebody’s got vomiting and diarrhea and has to shoot today.”

Yuk yuk doc

It was a pharma rep that got Dr Russ Kennedy hooked. “He saw me hosting a golf tournament and said I should come to the Comedy Cellar and do a set.” Kennedy had a thriving family practice in Victoria when he took the stage in the smokey basement of a perpetually failing hotel and caught the itch.

“Stand-up is an addiction, it really is, when you look at the people that are in it and you look at why you’re doing it. You have to ask yourself ‘Is this fun?’”

It was more fun than what he was doing, suffering in stoic silence. “I called my practice ‘the machine:’ I would walk into the machine and it would take me and, at the end of the day, it would spit me out.”

“Having stand-up comedy really balances things out. I know I’m a lot happier as a doctor doing stand up as well.”

On top of a busy performance schedule, he does a few shifts each week at a Vancouver walk-in-clinic; teaches yoga and meditation; he’s starred in a TV pilot (it didn’t get picked up), has a weekly spot on a local radio show and just finished filming a commercial.

He’s now about to begin another draft of a book he’s been shopping to publishers. He says it’s aimed at giving people a little perspective on what he calls “the ego-based consumer mentality.”

“When I hear myself say that, I want to have a seizure,” he concedes and acknowledges it’s a little odd for an aspiring comic, who thrives on the approval of strangers, to be offering up wisdom about escaping one’s ego; and certainly the self-help section of the mega bookstores may not need another edition on its shelves. But he’s got ‘born-again’ zeal to burn. “I just want to get the word out.”

In 2004, after 12 years of practice, Kennedy put the machine on the block. He is certain it was the right decision to pare down his medical work, but he still wrestles with the consequences. “I do carry a fair amount of guilt that I’m kind of skimming the easy stuff and letting my general practice colleagues do the hard stuff. I really admire the GPs that can hang in there and do it. I just know that it’s not for me.”

The horse whisperer

Dr Ray Kellosalmi hung in there for the hard stuff, putting in 80-hour weeks running a medical centre and a full-service practice, delivering babies, assisting with surgeries, making house calls and taking his turn in the ER at a hospital in BC’s Okanagan.

“In 30 years, I’d worked at least 45 or 50. After that long with my nose to the grindstone I was getting pretty close to burnout, if I wasn’t there already.” So he sold his practice in 2003. His work hours haven’t changed that much, but what he does certainly has. He now runs a halfway ranch for abandoned and rescued horses on 40 hectares near Vernon, BC.

Cutting the hay while the weather’s good can mean some long days and nights too, but these chores have their thrills. “Last year, I was bringing a load in with my bale wagon and, in the headlights of my tractor, I spotted nine coyote pups all lined up watching me go by, wondering what I was doing in the middle of the night. I was just so happy to have their company.”

Kellosalmi is no city slicker indulging his cowboy fantasies. The 61 year old, who grew up in BC’s Fraser Valley, has been around horses his entire life. The horse refuge is largely the product of other people’s irresponsibility, the ones who collect and dispose of horses as if they were motorcycles, he says. If he has to, he’ll drive straight from a horse auction in Winnipeg, only stopping to feed and water the horses he’s spared from the slaughterhouse.

Since he and his wife decided to take in their first orphan in 1987, they have moved a few times to accommodate the growing number of horses that began passing through. Up until a few years ago, the need for refuges like Kellosalmi’s was fuelled in part by the medical industry’s demand for Premarin (from pregnant mare’s urine) for hormone replacement therapy and the unwanted horses generated by the industry. 

He still puts in a few hours each week at an urgent-care centre in Vernon — “just to keep my head in the game” — but he’s not interested in taking on anymore shifts. “I’m in a happier place now, listening to the birds and watching the horses as I cut the hay.”

Behind the words

Setting up an interview with Daniel Kalla took some time. First, the publicist had to be contacted to settle on an hour to speak to the Vancouver ER doc. His transcontinental flight, the publicist explained, had not yet touched down. That was fine, it allowed time for the press kit to arrive.

“A good ER physician is like a good referee,” said Kalla, when the appointed hour arrived, “you don’t want to be noticed.”

In the publishing business, though, the rituals must be observed. Since his first book was published in 2005, novels have been tumbling out of him. His sixth, awaiting a final cover design, he says, is in the style of Ken Follett, “it’s an epic saga that’s part historical about a Mayo-Clinic-like hospital on the West Coast that’s reaching a current-day crisis.”

His second career began with a screenwriting night course. The teacher liked his final project enough to refer it to a production company. “We dropped it off Tuesday and they called us on Friday and told us they wanted to make it into a movie.” The movie never got made, but it was enough of a boost to keep Kalla writing.

He still works 30 hours a week at St. Paul’s. “I like the balance a lot; one feeds the other. If I’m beat down and exhausted from work I can come home and turn my attention to the creative process. And often times when I’m in a rut early in a novel I’m forced to leave it and forget about it for a while.”

Time may be short for Kalla’s balancing act as an anonymous physician and a literary figure. They’ve already begun asking for him by name: “One night a triage nurse comes up to me — the waiting room is just bursting — and she says “I’ve got this woman, she’s got abdominal pain… and she’s got an idea for a book.”

What becomes clear when looking at these four MDs is that there isn’t just one way to define your professional life. Whether it’s practising in a very specific community, redesigning your work week with just a toe hold in medicine, or striking a balance that energizes you, your career is entirely in your hands.

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