First-year medical students can't believe the star treatment they get from the public, when people find out they are enrolled at the Northern Medical Program.
The NMP turned 10 years old with a birthday party on Friday at its UNBC headquarters. Several dignitaries and a lot of students were on hand to celebrate the province's first medical school outside of the Lower Mainland.
"Whenever I'd mention I was in the NMP, the response was so excited," said Dr. Heather Smith, a member of the very first NMP cohort and now a family practitioner. "I really knew it was a big deal when we made the front page of The Citizen just because we took our exams."
And she remembers a particular patient during a squeamish procedure calling her into the action.
"Well where's that med student?" the patient told the attending doctor. "She should put her finger there too."
But that generosity of spirit hasn't waned. The new crop of first-year students reports the same celebrity status out in the community and a mentorship ethic among local medical professionals that would stagger med students in other cities. Former Prince Rupert student Susan Luong and former 108 Mile Ranch resident Scott Matlock - both of whom moved to Prince George to attend UNBC undergraduate studies - decided to stay on as part of the UNBC-UBC jointly operated Northern Medical Program.
"I saw the tight-knit atmosphere among the medical students, and the faculty was always so enthusiastic and excited to be working in the north," said Matlock.
"It's been here for 10 years now, but the patients we talk to just light up when they find out we are training to be doctors," said Luong.
Both are impressed by the small numbers of students per instructor, and mentioned over and over again about how much support there is for their education from the medical professionals already working in the area.
According to the latest statistics - a hard set of numbers to crunch considering the NMP is only 10 years old and it takes 14 years for some students to obtain their credentials in some specialties not offered in this area - the NMP's original purpose is already coming to pass. Dr. Paul Winwood, the associate dean overseeing the program, said 30 per cent of those grads are already working in the north and two-thirds of the overall grads are working in rural and/or remote areas.
And who knows how many will spend time in other regions only to come back to the north later?
Also, the students added, even if they choose to practice medicine somewhere outside the north (both Luong and Matlock had at least tentative plans to remain in the region to practice) they would forever be ambassadors for northern B.C.
The dignitaries who attended all spoke of the hard work necessary to convince the provincial government to establish the NMP, find the money for that investment, and clear the multitude of political and fiscal hurdles that challenged the notion.
MLA Shirley Bond was, when the time to plan the medical school came up, the Minister of Advanced Education and had a deep love for the notion. She had been convinced by the organizers - most of them medical professionals - of a community rally in 2000 that demanded a northern solution to deep problems in the overall medical system all across this region. She said "I still get chills when I think about the call" she got from then-premier Gordon Campbell telling her to go ahead with the program.
UNBC's longtime president Charles Jago said "they were not easy discussions. They were often heated," as the preliminary notion for a Prince George medical school took shape. He said he went to Campbell when he was still an opposition leader "and I asked him if this was a ball he was going to carry or a ball he was going to drop, and he told me he would carry it."
The history of that ball being carried is much longer than 10 years, but the last decade is the 10 years that count most, with dozens of new doctors each year now coming out of the Northern Medical Program and taking up positions by the bedsides of patients here and around the world who need their skills.