After 35 years practicing medicine in Nelson, Dr. Paul Walker shows few signs that he might be slowing down.
He was recently honoured with a Rural Long Service Award from the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada. The award recognizes doctors within their society who have worked for 20 years in rural and remote communities.
The society doesn’t have an award for 40 years of service. But the way things are going with Walker, he may well make it to that milestone.
“I failed at retirement,” the 65-year-old told the Star. “Unless I can figure out what to do with free time, I might still be working at 70.”
Walker tried to retire a couple years ago. He moved his practice from its longtime home in a heritage house at the top of Baker Street into the Nelson Medical Clinic. And he found two doctors to take over his patient list (no single doctor would take on the number of people he had).
His wife Pat, who worked with him everyday as his medical office assistant, settled nicely into retirement. But Walker jumped on opportunities to go back to work anytime his colleagues needed someone to fill in for them during a vacation.
“It’s hard when you’re used to going 110 miles an hour to slow down. Even just going the speed limit is tough, never mind trying to go slower than that,” Walker said.
He currently works eight months of the year, shuffling from office to office wherever he’s needed — and he’s always needed. From the day he arrived here, fresh out of medical school in 1976, there’s never been a lack of work for doctors.
He said even with the recent move towards mandatory rural placements for medical students, most doctors gravitate to urban centers, either because that’s where it’s easier for their partners to find work or because they want to specialize.
Many who start off in small towns move away after a decade or so.
“The 10-year crisis in medicine, like any career, is a very real thing,” Walker said. “You need to find something to keep the job interesting.”
Walker did consider returning to a big city to specialize in radiology, and even went so far as to visit a few schools. But ultimately he didn’t want to uproot his wife and their three sons.
Instead he took on responsibilities outside his practice, becoming Chief of Staff at the local hospital for a time, as well becoming involved with the Society of General Practitioners, an advocacy group for doctors.
But what really kept him going was mentoring the medical students who came to his office for their practicum and to learn about rural medicine.
“It’s easy to convince students they’ll get to do much more interesting and varied work in a rural community,” Walker said. “That’s what drew me to rural medicine, but for a lot of young people it’s terrifying.”
General Practitioners need to know about 80 per cent of what every type of medical specialist knows, and they also need to learn to live with uncertainty because they can’t know everything.
“A lot of my colleagues who have since specialized say working in general practice was the hardest part of their career,” Walker said. “For me, that’s what keeps it interesting. That’s what keeps me coming to work when I should be retired.”