February 2012


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.

Elaine Kilabuk talking to Dr. John Burgess. Photo: Owen Egan


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.

Elaine Kilabuk with a copy of the doctor's book, and John Burgess. Photo: Owen Egan


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.

[Maria Turner]

Doctor to the North is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble as well as many bookstores across Canada.

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.



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5 Responses to “”
  1. Alexandre Henri-Bhargava says:

    Thank you, Dr. Burgess. What a great gift! Although he never personally taught me during my time at McGill, I was always impressed by Dr. Burgess’ calm demeanour and his insightful comments at rounds. Really a class act and a role model for all physicians and McGillians.

    I spent a wonderful month as a medical student in Puvurnituq and I have friends who have returned to work as nurses in the Arctic. The lack of Inuit doctors is a real problem and I am glad Ms. Kilabuk has decided to fix that!

  2. bonnie stamos destounis says:

    Dr. Burgess contribution to the north is fantastic. Because of Dr. Burgess, . I am so very impressed and pleased to see that this girl had the opportunity to enter the Medical program. A rare opportunity for a native of Canada’s North and a wonderful contribution to the aboriginal population.

    I worked with the McGill Baffin Project from 1984 to 1988 as a physiotherapist. In particular, I assessed children with neurological and orthopedic impairments with Dr. Gordon Watters and Dr. Bob Gledhill. My concern over the high number of children with disabilites that I saw lead me to persue a Master’s degree in order to determine the prevalence ofm disabilities among children 0-18 years. Conducting the project provided me with the opportunity to visit the 14 communities on Baffin Island. The results of the survey showed that the prevalence of children with physical and sensory disabilities was three times the National average. Another important observation was that the inuit people accept children with disabilities as a special child and the children are integrated in all activities. Intigration is not an isssue.
    I certainly feel the same way Dr. Burgess does about the North. I had the most treasured experiences unparalled in my professional career. Now that I am retired I have pursued art courses in sculpturing in which I portray the naturalism and dynamic life in Canada’s high Arctic.

  3. Anne Marie Uhlir says:

    Well done, Dr. Burgess! I have fond memories of you in Puvirnituq and I remember having a discussion with you about diagnosing and following rheumatic heart disease (without the benefit of echocardiograms) in Inuit patients when you first started going up North and what a difference prosthetic valves had made for so many of these patients. Your commitment to the Inuit and your love for the North were always obvious. I look forward to reading your book and congratulate you once more on setting up such a great scholarship.

  4. Nancy Barker, MDCM '83 says:

    My accolades to you, Dr. Burgess. I certainly remember your wise words from my medical school days at McGill. I also had the good fortune to be a patient of yours just long enough to learn that I luckily did not need any cardiologic care. I was so impressed by that interaction with you that 30 years later I still have your consultation letter. I imagine the patients of the Arctic have been similarly impressed and heartened by your practical yet empathetic care. I look forward to reading your book, and to hearing about future recipients of your scholarship.

    I, too, spent some time practising medicine in the North. There is nothing quite like it, and I feel extremely fortunate to have had that experience. The grace, fortitude, and patience of the Inuit, and the startingly beautiful surroundings have stayed with me since that time. It would have been wonderful to have worked alongside an Inuit doctor. Congratulations to you, Elaine Kilabuk, on receiving the first Burgess Scholarship. Best of luck to you in your studies. You will no doubt follow in Dr. Burgess’ footsteps in transforming the lives of your patients.

  5. Joel Wolkowicz says:

    Great to see Dr. Burgess again. He is aging much better than I am. I was trained in cardiology under Dr. Burgess’ tutelage at the Montreal General Hospital, 1987-1989; I also had the good fortune to spend a month in Baffin Island as a resident in Internal Medicine in 1986. This provided me with the opportunity to co-author a paper with Dr. Burgess on Familial Heart Block, published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology in 1988. That was a long time ago. But I still hear Dr. Burgess talking to me when I am examining a cardiac patient, discerning a murmur or debating management options. He was the master diagnostician in the days before technology took over medicine. The lessons he taught me have been invaluable to my career – much of what I have been able to accomplish since then is a direct result of what Dr. Burgess and his colleagues were able to teach me (sometimes despite myself).

    My very best to Dr. Burgess, and my sincere gratitude for helping me become the physician and person I have become.

    Joel Wolkowicz, MDCM 1984, FACC
    Medical Director of Cardiology
    President of the Medical Staff
    CVPH Medical Center
    Plattsburgh, NY