When he was named the consulting cardiologist to the McGill Baffin Project in 1973, John H. Burgess, BSc’54, MDCM’58, didn’t know that he would end up falling in love with Canada’s North. He did, and spent the next three decades serving as a consulting cardiologist to the Inuit in Nunavut and Nunavik. Burgess has now retired from practice, but he has not stopped giving to the North. In the summer of 2011, he dedicated funds to create the Dr. John H. Burgess Distinguished Scholarship for students from indigenous communities in Canada enrolled in McGill’s Faculty of Medicine.
Enter first year med student Elaine Kilabuk, the first recipient of the Burgess Scholarship. Born in Iqaluit but brought up in Florida, Kilabuk is a fountain of warmth and energy. Upon meeting Burgess for the first time, she is soon trading stories of hiking in the Arctic and the difficult conditions that face physicians in the North. “I really became aware of it when my grandmother had COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease),” says Kilabuk, who was a teenager at the time. “I went with her to the local nursing centre, and it was striking how different it was from the facilities elsewhere. She had to be flown out for treatment.” It was this experience that made the young Kilabuk determined to return to the North to help out. Studying medicine is giving her that opportunity, and the new scholarship is, in turn, helping make it a reality.
Although she does not yet know what kind of medicine she will practice (she is currently thinking of Family Medicine) Kilabuk has already started to prove her dedication to Northern communities. In the spring of 2012, she is participating in a series about Inuit mentorship with the Aboriginal People’s Television Network, which will document her work with a physician based in Iqaluit. She is also looking into starting a program to promote careers in health care to Inuit students. She has already signed a contract with the Department of Health and Social Services in Nunavut agreeing to work in the area for four years following her residency.
Burgess talks about the changes he saw over his 30 years in the North. “When I first went up there was virtually no coronary disease,” he says. Now, after the introduction of the “southern” way of eating, that situation has changed drastically. “There is a real need for Inuit physicians,” says Burgess. “I always had to deal with people through an interpreter, and it wasn’t always easy to develop a rapport with my patients.” That he nevertheless succeeded is clear from his stories, and from the photos in his book, Doctor to the North, published in 2008 by McGill Queens University Press.
Kilabuk and Burgess leaf through the pages of the book together, pointing out photographs of familiar landmarks and recounting memories. “It was a tremendous experience,” says Burgess of his time in the North. “It was a big part of my life.” Now, thanks to students like Kilabuk, his legacy continues.
Feature photo at top: Entering the Arctic Circle: mountains 30 km north of Pangnirtung, Nunavut. Photo: John Burgess, and published in Doctor to the North.