What retirement looks and feels like to two long-term Prince George doctors.

Susan Knoll. Northern Health photo
Susan Knoll. Northern Health photo

BY ROBBIE POZER

Northern Health

As my co-worker, Bailee, and I walked down the street to meet up with and interview Drs. Garry and Susan Knoll, we jokingly bantered back and forth what we would do if we were retiring. The Knolls have been family doctors in Prince George for over 25 years, and they’ve finally made the decision to retire. Susan officially left her practice at the end of September and Garry is hoping to be done at his practice by January 2019.

“I bet they’re popping a big ol’ bottle of champagne and sailing to Tahiti!” I exaggerated.

Bailee, a tad more realistic than myself, mentioned something about being leaders in the medical community… something something? My mind was on a sailboat in Tahiti.

But, moments into the interview, I soon discovered, and probably should have predicted, Bailee was right. Even though the Knolls are parting from their full-time practices, the two doctors still have their stethoscopes on the heartbeat of the medical community. Here’s what each of them had to say on the topic of “retiring.”

What will you miss about practicing full time?

Susan:

I’ll miss my patients. I’ve been looking after them for 20+ years. We have a relationship with each other and we’ve been through a lot together.

I’ll also miss the camaraderie at the office. I have been sharing an office with Ed Turski for most of the years in Prince George and Lindsay Kwantes joined us about six years ago. Both were fantastic partners – we never even came close to an argument! And our MOA, Colleen Price looked after us and our patients very well. I think we all respected and liked each other. Lindsay moved to be near family this summer, so we recruited two new grads from our Residency Program, who I was privileged to oversee through their training. It made it somewhat easier to leave, knowing that our office remains in good hands. But it will still be hard, in some respects, to part ways with that “family”.

Garry:

I’ll miss feeling that sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, and all the fun I had in the office. I really enjoyed the intergenerational relationships we built, and working with everyone at the hospital. I just came from a meeting with my interprofessional team and it was really good – we’re really getting to know the team and what people bring to the table, which makes it tough to leave.

I’ll also miss being part of the forward progress our system is making. It’s nice to be a part of a plan from the beginning, and since switching to integrated primary and community care, it’s been like going to Mars! There’s no turning back. We’ve decided to commit to a plan that I’m confident it will be better for everyone in the long run. It feels like we’ve recently made such positive strides in the right direction.

What are you looking forward to most about being retired?

Susan:

Well I can tell you what I won’t miss! I won’t miss getting up to an alarm and rushing through rounds, then rushing to the office, and that feeling of always being late!

Now that I have a bit (a lot) more time, I’ve joined the Cantata Singers, which is great. I’m also able to hang out with my grandkids more and attend to all the “pieces of my wellness pie”! I’m looking forward to doing more travelling also.

Garry:

You know, as a doctor, you’re always in a rush and with a lot of time pressure. I won’t miss that. I also won’t miss all the documentation!

Are you planning to stay involved with the medical community in some way?

Gary Knoll. Northern Health photo
Gary Knoll. Northern Health photo

Garry:

I’m still going to work some shifts at the Nechako walk-in clinic and cover for other doctors’ vacations at my clinic. And I’m still going to help with the Prince George Divisions of Family Practice for a bit. We have a lot of friends in the medical community still, which makes it easy to stay connected. In Prince George, doctors have really good foresight and can grasp the ‘big picture’ of medicine. It keeps us very interested in what’s happening locally.

Susan:

I’ll still be doing a few shifts at the Nechako walk-in clinic as well. Prince George has a really unique medical community that makes us want to stay involved. About 40% of our Family Physicians were graduates of our Residency program here in Prince George – I don’t know anywhere else that’s like that.

When you’re both retired, will you be doing anything immediately to celebrate?

Susan:

Truthfully, the last day of work at my clinic just slipped by. When you’re in charge of making sure everything will run smoothly when you’re gone, it sort of sneaks up on you. I didn’t even have time to tell my patients or the medical office assistant that it was my last day! The clinic had a lovely celebration later.

Garry:

When I finish, we’re planning to go cross-country skiing for three weeks in the New Year! Honestly, when you’re in charge of a practice, you don’t really get a “clean cut.” In one way or another, you’re involved. I think the hardest thing will be when we both decide to hand in our licenses. That will be a tough day.

In your career, did you ever experience physician burnout or woes? Would you have any advice for medical students who might be experiencing something similar?

Susan:

I experienced a bit of burnout about 10 years ago. Luckily, I was able to recognize it, so I decided to get a coach and I discussed my values and what I hoped to get out of life. It was then that I decided to scale back the number of patients I was seeing in clinic, and added the part-time position of site director for the Family Practice Residency Program, Prince George site.

It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex and just go, go, go. Some advice for new graduates and medical students: read my article on wellness. It’s important to keep a balance in life and not be afraid to make changes. Realize that good work is part of the balance, you’re contributing, and it makes you feel good.

Garry:

I’ve never had the burnout experience, although lately I have been thinking a lot about retirement! There have been times when I’ve felt frustrated, but I think any job has those.

The last 12 years I’ve been really focusing on finding a way forward for my practice, and the patients in the practice. I want patients to have a doctor that’s going to be there for the long term. Now that the practice has that, it makes it a LOT easier to step back.

Longitudinal care is so much better for patients and doctors – to have that long term relationship with their doctor. My hat’s off to the patients that have been there to educate residents over the last long years!

My advice for burnout: Self-reflection is important to be committed to. It’s important to receive feedback, and you need that group of people willing to give it in your professional and social life. You have to ask yourself, “Am I doing the things in life that align with my values?”

What was the biggest challenge for each of you both being general practitioners (family doctors)?

Garry:

I think the biggest challenge was getting time off together. It was always a big scheduling event. We cared for the same patients in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, and so we always talked about them when we weren’t at work. When we moved to Prince George we didn’t have the same patients, so we didn’t have that connection. There are definitely upsides to always understanding each other’s work demands.

Susan:

For me, balancing the call of work and family was challenging. It actually became easier to overwork when the kids grew up, because they weren’t at home demanding our time. Overworking is easy when you both have busy schedules!

So, as it turns out, “retiring” to this pair of doctors is more about slowing down than anything else. Although there are no immediate plans of sailing towards Tahiti, it was genuinely satisfying to hear the praise and confidence they have for the direction northern BC healthcare is headed, and the people who are involved in moving it forward.

Thank you Garry and Susan for your interview time, and for leaving a lasting positive impact on your community!

Robbie Pozer Robbie Pozer is a Communications Advisor for Population and Public Health at Northern Health. A UNBC grad, Robbie was thrilled to be offered an opportunity to work with NH in the summer of 2017 and help promote health in his home region. Although he MUST apply a thick layer of sunscreen to his brittle, ginger skin, he can almost always be found outside playing sports, mountain biking, or getting nice and lost in beautiful B.C.