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Circle of healing

A young doctor carries on the passion of an exceptional doctor and Aboriginal health advocate

September 22, 2014

Circle of healing
After graduating from Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Dr. Alison Fine, MD’13, started her medical residency through the Northern Remote Program, a two-year program focused on family medicine and Aboriginal health. She is the first recipient of the Dr. Dana Winterburn Memorial Award.

Talk to Dr. Alison Fine, MD’13, and it’s no wonder she’s humbled to have received an award named for an exceptional mentor.

“During my family medicine clerkship, I observed the way Dr. Winterburn was so amazing in being present and available to her patients,” says Dr. Fine, who completed her medical training at Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “She went above and beyond to help others, accepted everyone as they were and treated them with great respect and care.”

Dr. Fine first met Dr. Dana Winterburn – a faculty member of family medicine at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry – when she invited the doctor to address Western students involved with an Aboriginal health advocacy group.

“She talked passionately about helping those who lived at residential schools and the huge challenges they face today,” says Dr. Fine. “And she shared how she related to them with empathy, trying to understand their history, culture and lives  and what care they would need. For me, she demonstrated that every person, no matter what they’ve experienced in life, needs to be heard.”

That encounter – and her family medicine clerkship with the doctor – left an impression on Dr. Fine, the inaugural recipient of the Dr. Dana Winterburn Memorial Award.

“She was always willing to give of herself, offering a gentle approach to her patients,” says Dr. Fine. “I want to take that legacy – of respect, compassion and care – with me into my future medical practice.”

Circle of healing
The late Dr. Dana Winterburn served as a family physician at the Middlesex-London Health Unit and the North Lambton Community Health Centre (serving the Kettle Point First Nation) prior to joining the Department of Family Medicine at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

These are the same values the late Dr. Winterburn carried through life. The first Aboriginal graduate from the University of Alberta medical program, she completed her certification in family medicine at Western in 1996. After serving as a family physician in southwestern Ontario for many years, she joined Schulich Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine in 2004 and worked as a teaching doctor at the Byron Family Medicine Clinic (BFMC) in London. The 50-year-old Winterburn was killed in a car accident in April 2012.

Her sudden death prompted an outpouring of grief from family, friends, patients and colleagues – but also a tremendous wave of generosity. “When I heard the news of her death, like everyone else, I was completely shocked to lose such an exceptional doctor and friend,” says Dr. John Sangster, a physician at BFMC who had known Winterburn since 1994. “She was one of those rare individuals who integrated the art and science of medicine.”

For Dr. Sangster and his colleagues, they wanted to honour her memory in some way. With the support of Dr. Winterburn’s family, they helped establish a memorial fund at Western. In the next days and weeks after the tragedy, family members, patients and friends from every walk of life contributed to the fund, each one giving as a tribute to what Dr. Winterburn had given to them. “Many of us, including her patients, didn’t know what to do or how to help, so the memorial fund provided an anchor for our grief,” says Toula Gerace, a nurse at BFMC.

In the months after Dr. Winterburn’s death, donors and community leaders contributed a total of $26,000 to the endowed fund (enough to present a $1,000 memorial award every year in perpetuity). The following May, Dr. Fine was named the first recipient – someone who learned from Winterburn and who has an interest in Aboriginal health and family medicine. “Our team lost an exceptional colleague and wonderful physician, but we’re pleased that promising doctors, like Alison, will continue Dana’s passion for family and Aboriginal health,” says Dr. Sangster.

Dr. Fine is doing just that. She is completing a two-year medical residency focused on Aboriginal health. During her first year, she received training in Winnipeg hospitals, all in preparation for going to remote and fly-in communities in northern Manitoba, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Over the next 12 months, she will be spending a week or up to three months providing medical care for the people in these isolated areas, sometimes being the only resident in the community.

“My hope,” she adds, “is to approach everyone I meet in these isolated communities with patience and understanding.”

For Dr. Winterburn’s colleagues, there’s no better tribute than to keep her passions alive. “Dana treated all of her patients the same, no matter what their life situation or social status,” says Jan Barylski, who worked closely with Dr. Winterburn as a family practice nurse at BFMC. “Her patients loved her and were impressed with her knowledge, compassion and willingness to go the extra mile, even if that meant giving up her own time.”

“The fact that so many people from so many places contributed to the memorial fund reflects her enthusiasm, warmth and humour,” says Dr. Sonny Cejic, a colleague of Dr. Winterburn’s at BFMC. “Every spring from now on, around the anniversary of her death, we will remember her and renew our commitment to honour our friend’s life.”

Fitting tribute

“Dana was quiet and unassuming, but extremely proud of her Aboriginal roots and culture,” says Dr. John Sangster. “She passionately served in various capacities at the provincial and national level to advocate for better health care for Aboriginal communities.” In recognition of that dedication, the Dr. Dana Winterburn Memorial Award is awarded to an Aboriginal student who wishes to pursue family medicine or a student who has an interest in working with Aboriginal communities.

This article appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Impact Western
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