Second-year Northern Medical Program student Caitlin Blewett’s passion for rural medicine and small towns was cemented during her time on Haida Gwaii, the unceded traditional territory of the Haida people. Her many life-changing experiences there turned a three-month stay into a permanent one.
Having initially moved to the island region from Vancouver for a post-graduate course, she knew within a month that it was the place she wanted to be. And only the chance to attend medical school and one day undertake a rural medical practice persuaded her to leave after seven years – for now.
“My connection to Haida Gwaii grew very quickly,” says Blewett. “One of the things that I really love about working in smaller communities is that while there aren’t a lot of people, there are, in my experience, enough people who are really passionate about making the community better and making it work, and making sure that it has everything that all of the people in it need.”
“The people I met just threw open arms out to anything you wanted to do and anything you were interested in being a part of. Within the first month, I had joined the fire department! They’re just so excited to have people with energy and excitement who want to live in the community and who want to make it work. I think this kind of attitude is a large part of what keeps me in Northern BC, and what makes me want to live and work here for the rest of my life. I definitely applied to medicine in hopes of pursuing rural family practice.”
As the 2019 recipient of the Rising Star of Health Service Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions made to health care in the North, Blewett has been part of a number of initiatives to improve care on Haida Gwaii and in other small communities. The $5,000 award is provided through the Northern Medical Programs Trust, established in 2002 to help support health-care student education and recruitment initiatives in the North.
Blewett’s past work includes coordinating a large research and community engagement project focused on child/youth mental health and substance use; developing wellness forums; providing community support as a volunteer fire fighter; working with Elders to improve quality of life for Indigenous communities; and serving as a board member with the Haida Gwaii Islands Wellness Society.
A Masters of Public Health graduate, Blewett cultivated a strong desire during her time on the islands to help improve access to care in rural communities, which has put a special lens on her current studies as a medical student.
“I have become very passionate about rural health services and when I think about my future career as a family doctor, I’m not just focused on things like how can I get enough ER training or maternity training. It’s also about where do I want to go home to, what kind of services does that community need, and how do I make sure that they can get those services in town rather than having to fly to Vancouver or take an eight-hour ferry to Prince Rupert, for example.”
And time spent at the BC Rural Health Conference held this past spring only further solidified her interest in rural medicine and healthcare improvement.
“Connecting with rural family doctors at the conference who have been doing this for so long and just getting to see how much they can change the work that they are doing, both to suit their communities and to suit what they and their families need, it’s really heartening. Everyone is so supportive and excited about people who want to try different things.
“I went to a couple of different meetings with discussions centred around how physicians can be supported and help to keep services such as maternity care and pain management in town so that residents have access and are getting what they need. There is so much passion in this field. It was amazing and I love it so much.”