Embracing the Humanity of Medicine
Meet Doctors Manitoba 2021 – 22 President: Dr. Kristjan Thompson
by Keir Johnson
When Dr. Kristjan Thompson took the reins last May as President of Doctors Manitoba, he did so on Zoom. Once again, the Annual General Meeting was being held virtually due to the pandemic.
While some of the ceremonial traditions were retained, including the passing of the chains of office, the normal pomp and circumstance that accompanies the annual event were absent. No matter, however, as Dr. Thompson delivered the speech everybody needed at that moment after 14 difficult months of fighting COVID-19. It was an uplifting, hopeful reminder about how the very foundations of the practice of medicine would see us all through this prolonged, disruptive, and unpredictable public health crisis.
“It’s all about making connections and building relationships,” he explained.
This was a lesson he learned early in life, from his grandmother.
“My grandma Ruth once told me that in one way or another, we’re all just looking to make a connection,” he recalled. “Making those connections is simple, because once you understand the why, it’s easy to figure out the how.”
Not coming from a health care background, Dr. Thompson’s path to medicine was paved by his experiences as a patient, and as a family member of one. He was inspired by the “brilliant physicians” he encountered during his childhood and youth.
“The physicians I met had clearly trained countless years to acquire the requisite knowledge and skills to do their job just right, but it was their dedication to their patients and their ability to connect with the people in front of them that made them truly remarkable.”
In Dr. Thompson’s view, taking the time to make these connections, “to understand and value the ‘why’ or the ‘art’ of what we do” is what called him to the profession in the first place. Today, it’s what sustains him through the many highs and lows.
“They say that the greatest gift to humanity is science, but I would argue that the greatest gift to our science is humanity,” Dr. Thompson asserted. He encouraged his virtual audience to reflect on their own journeys, and to “cherish those precious, albeit often fleeting, moments of real connections you’ve made throughout your career.”
Many physicians have shared lessons like Dr. Thompson’s, but there was a reason he dwelled on this during his inaugural address as Doctors Manitoba’s new President. As he assumed this new role, just over a year into the pandemic, COVID-19 had robbed us all of the ability to meaningfully connect, and it was threatening to erode our very own humanity.
He described a “constant undercurrent of anxiety” that had taken hold after months of prolonged disruptions with no certain end in sight.
“Those feelings come in waves,” he sighed, “just like the pandemic.” He recounted a day in early summer, when that sentiment of fear was replaced with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. It was the day he met Mackenzie, a patient who arrived at the St. Boniface emergency department by ambulance.
Dr. Thompson recalled hearing the overhead call: “CTAS 1, Code Blue, five minutes away!”
That gave him and his colleagues just enough time to put on their PPE and get the resuscitation room ready.
The paramedic burst in and announced the situation: “20-year-old female, witnessed arrest, prolonged downtime.”
His heart sank. Those last two words – “prolonged downtime” – stuck in his mind. She had already been in cardiac arrest for nearly an hour.
“The odds were increasingly stacked against her, and with each passing moment, the chances of a meaningful recovery were dwindling.” Luckily, they found a shockable rhythm and proceeded.
“To our surprise, her left arm moved, and she was making weak respiratory efforts. A glimmer of hope that was quickly dashed away as she slipped back in and out of cardiac arrest.”
In that moment, the worries about COVID-19 had vanished. Dr. Thompson and about a dozen other physicians, nurses, and health care aides worked together in unison. Her airway was secured and a central line inserted to accommodate the many drugs and infusions that were keeping her alive.
After about 90 minutes, she had a sustained heart rhythm and pulse, but “morale was low, her prognosis tenuous, and yet hope was not completely lost. It couldn’t have been, because we needed something to hold on to in that bleak moment as the adrenaline started to dissipate.”
The ICU team and perfusionists took over her care, but Dr. Thompson was now tasked with meeting her family and providing them with a long-awaited update on her condition.
“I’ll never forget their faces. I felt their pain and their sadness, and I can still feel it to this day. I was honest, but I didn’t want to rob them of that hope.”
He described that raw moment of connection and the vicarious trauma that healthcare workers endure throughout their careers. “That’s the rub,” he explained. “I think the single most compelling reason why so many of us are drawn to this profession is the same reason why we sometimes find it so difficult. It’s the humanity of what we do. We often see people in their most vulnerable state and are confronted with the vast spectrum of the human condition and the fragility of life. Among the highs and lows, there is a definite beauty in the chaos of everything we see and do — and that is quite a privilege to bear witness to.”
Mackenzie’s story didn’t end in the ER that day. She was admitted and spent 118 days at St. Boniface Hospital. Not only did she survive, but she got up and walked out of the hospital on her own — completely neurologically intact. She was even able to return to her old job shortly after being discharged home.
Watch Mackenzie’s story here
“I was involved in only the first few hours of her nearly four months in hospital,” Dr. Thompson emphasized, as he quickly credited his many colleagues at the hospital that saved her life. “In earnest, the most remarkable part of this story is what came after the patient left our emergency department.”
Dr. Thompson estimates she was treated by at least 50 other physicians, along with countless other health professionals, during her hospital stay. “Physicians from nearly every specialty worked collaboratively, contributing their skills and expertise. They all played a role in her miraculous recovery.”
Dr. Thompson will never forget Mackenzie.
“Her story is a ray of light, piercing through these otherwise dark and uncertain pandemic times we find ourselves in. She teaches us the true meaning of resiliency and strength in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.”
In sharing Mackenzie’s story, Dr. Thompson was offering a message to his colleagues that even during difficult and unpredictable times, during the lows, it is important to take the time to connect with each patient, to defend the humanity in medicine.
Seeing how the second year of the pandemic unfolded since his inaugural speech, his message was prophetic. Countless physicians took the time to connect with patients who were hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccines. Doctors are empathizing with their patients as they face long and uncertain waits for surgeries and diagnostic tests, delayed due to the pandemic response. Preserving the humanity in medicine was tested as ICUs were overwhelmed, and patients had to be sent out of province for critical care.
“What we do matters, but it isn’t easy,” he acknowledges. “It comes with great personal sacrifice. We need to continue to be here for each other, because when we work together as a profession, we can achieve greatness.”
“Through our connections, our relationships, our shared struggles and triumphs, we can overcome adversity, and do the impossible — together.”