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Elizabeth Thompson didn’t expect to end up back in Winkler.

Growing up in the area, she had no idea becoming a doctor was an option. Prevailing examples in the rural southern Manitoba community pointed more toward a future with marriage and kids, maybe shortly after graduation.

Now 41, she is married and has two kids under the age of four.

Dr. Thompson also leads a team of 13 surgeons at the CW Wiebe Medical Centre, a private clinic in Winkler, who also have surgical privileges at Boundary Trails Health Centre, the hospital between the cities of Winkler and Morden.

Ten of those surgeons are women.

But she says it took leaving to realize what was possible — and that shouldn’t be the case.

“We need to be encouraging these women in high school, or kids in high school … that you can do whatever you want to do,” said Thompson, who is a general surgeon at CW Wiebe Medical Center, and also acts as the lead surgeon of oncology and medical director of surgery at Boundary Trails.

“You do not have to stay in this small little box that certain groups say you need to be X, Y and Z to fit in.… You can make something fantastic of your life.”

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day on Tuesday, Thompson says it’s “huge” that a team of doctors and women surgeons at CW Wiebe and Boundary Trails can lead by example to help support those big dreams.

While there are exceptions in some fields, like obstetrics and gynecology, surgery is still a male-dominated area in Canada. Women make up just over a quarter of general surgeon positions in the country, according to 2018 data from the Canadian Medical Association.

Dr. Elizabeth Thompson is surgical lead of oncology and medical director of all surgeries at Boundary Trails Health Centre. (Janet Haslam Photography)

CW Wiebe executive director Jim Neufeld says it is a happy accident that over three-quarters of surgeons in the community are women — they happened to be among the most qualified candidates — but that doesn’t make it any less special.

“That is certainly an unusual trend in surgical programs,” said Neufeld.

“This group of surgeons that we have here, particularly the 10 females, has been really helpful in kind of building a team approach to the surgical services we can offer.”

The Winkler team, like surgical teams across the province, has faced challenges during the pandemic, as the province has redeployed surgical resources to COVID-19 care.

While the province caps the number of arthroplasty, or joint, surgeries at Boundary Trails at 500 annually, only 373 were done in 2020-21. The number is likely to come up short in the 2021-22 fiscal year too, with 271 done as of March, according to Thompson.

While the pandemic has challenged health care teams across the province, Neufeld says the rural hospital and clinic offer something he thinks is appealing: a different work-life balance than what you might get in a comparatively bigger pond.

Compared to Boundary Trails, Winnipeg has a larger pool of surgeons jockeying for a limited number of operating rooms. Surgeons looking for something more stable might choose to work in a rural area for that reason, said Neufeld.

Don’t dismiss rural Manitoba: surgeon

That isn’t necessarily true across the board, but a fixed volume of possible surgeries, combined with a tight-knit community feel, were factors for Dr. Alexis Marshall.

“The work-life balance really is a good perk,” said Marshall, an orthopedic surgeon at Boundary Trails and the CW Wiebe clinic.

“We have a wonderful team … and I wouldn’t have experienced that if I had just dismissed rural Manitoba.”

Marshall, 35, says she is very happy to be among the five orthopedic surgeons at CW Wiebe—four of whom are women. Across Canada, just over a tenth of orthopedic surgeons are women.

Dr. Alexis Marshall is an orthopedic surgeon at CW Wiebe Medical Center. (Submitted by Dr. Alexis Marshall)

Born in Labrador City, NL, and raised between there and Nova Scotia, Marshall graduated from medical school in 2017. She did her residency in Thunder Bay, Ont., followed by a stint in BC and a two-year fellowship in Toronto alongside Dr Erin Gordey.

Gordey later landed a job as an orthopedic surgeon at the Winkler clinic and hospital. She recommended Marshall, who applied and landed a job almost two years ago.

Getting to see the community since then hasn’t been especially easy during a pandemic, says Marshall. On top of widespread closures, she had to personally go through three different two-week isolation periods the year she moved to Winkler.

“The people that I work with were always checking in with me, making sure that I had all the food that I needed,” said Marshall.

“It was really that community sort of caring aspect that really shone through all of that. That just showed me how good of a group of people it was here to work with.”

Marshall said she is glad that group of people includes a woman-dominant surgical team.

“It’s good to have perspectives of people who are different genders, people who are different races, ethnicities,” she said. “Then, we can all come together collaboratively to make sure that patients are receiving the best care possible.”

For all its positives, Thompson says there are also challenges in the area.

Some doctors fear that anti-vaccine sentiment, COVID-19 hoax theories and harassment of health-care workers during the pandemic might have some southern Manitoba workers thinking of leaving. Establishing trust with patients has become more challenging in some cases, she says.

As well, being part of a smaller team means surgeons have more independence, but fewer experienced specialists to lean on for guidance when faced with a tough clinical case, says Thompson.

Dr. Thompson hopes to see more local efforts to expose all people, and girls in particular, to a broader range of career possibilities. (Janet Haslam Photography)

She said in high school, she had no models or exposure to the variety of possible career paths she might find beyond her community. She hopes that’s changing.

“Everybody talks about how it’s kind of an entrepreneurial town and wants to be independent and do things a little bit differently,” she said.

“Those are the tools that would give our females in this area the opportunity to do what we do, and that’s to take care of patients and to help our community.

“I would so encourage this community to get behind that.”

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