UNBC grads giving women's health care a professional boost

Megan Thwaites knew she’d picked the right branch of medicine to study the day she delivered her first baby.

It happened in her third year as a student in UBC’s Northern Medical Program at UNBC and the new arrival – a baby girl - came with an added bonus.

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“There was definitely one I did all by myself and she was named Megan - that was so nice,” said the Prince George born-and-raised Thwaites, one of the growing list of homegrown doctors who have returned to their roots in the city.

It took the Kelly Road Secondary School graduate 14 years of  postsecondary studies for Thwaites to earn her specialty as an obstetrician/gynecologist. After finishing medical school in 2010, she went to UBC in Vancouver to complete her six-year residency, starting out in general surgery, then switched to obstetrics.

“NMP was my preference because it was small and home and it was wonderful,” said Thwaites, 36. “With the smaller class sizes we got so much more hands-on experience than down in Vancouver and it was really amazing. All the teachers are really enthusiastic.

”Having the NMP here, we see a lot of family practice residents stay here and now being able to work with them as family doctors, it just builds a really nice community and everyone is collegial. It makes it a really nice working environment.”

The additional perk of family support made it an easy decision for her to return to Prince George four years ago to set up her practice. Thwaites is married to Prince George firefighter, Garrett Heggelund, and they have two kids, a 2 ½-year-old boy and seven-month-old daughter.

Each year the Northern Medical Program has an intake of 32 medical students and two of them, Lindsay Benoit and Natasha Pascas, graduated together in 2014. Like Thwaites, they are obstetricians, specialists in pregnancy, childbirth and women’s reproductive health. While they are known as “baby doctors,” who care for women during pregnancy and shortly after the baby is born, they treat most of their patients for gynecological issues  which involve the reproductive system.

“Probably the biggest misconception is we are baby doctors, but we really do care for women across the lifespan from teenagers all the way up to women in their ‘90s,” said Pascas. “It really is special that we’re able to form long relationships with a lot of our patients, having to be involved in their pregnancies and their births and to see them later in life.”

“While obstetrics is a very important part of what we do, especially up here in this community, it’s less than a half of what we do,” said Benoit. “Our specialty is very broad when it comes to women’s health. Yes, we do the reproductive side, but it’s much more than that.”

Pascas came from Burnaby, while Benoit is from Kelowna. They liked living in Prince George as students enough to make them want to return as specialists with their young families.

“The community is a great size and having done my medical school here just solidified a connection with the community at large and the medical community as well and has the whole package in what I was looking for personally and professionally,” said Benoit.

Benoit, 35, was inspired by her father Glenn, an obstetrician in Kelowna, and  knew early in her life she wanted to get into medicine. She and her husband, Darren Bylycia, a heavy-duty mechanic from Cluculz Lake, have two children, a five-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl.  After a six-year residency in Calgary, she joined the medical staff at UHNBC in July, swelling the ranks of obstetricians now working in the city to eight.

“I think it’s really rewarding, providing women’s health in the north is really special and really important, and I just feel real privileged and lucky to do that,” said Benoit. “There’s certainly some challenging days and sad things happen but I think it’s a privilege to be able to care for women.

“Certainly I had mentorship within my family and a very strong role model growing up and coming here to medical school, one of our department members definitely had a huge influence on my career and continues to do so. Her name is Marijo Odulio and she’s our current department head. As women, it’s so important to have those female role models. That’s what drew me to the residency.”

Pascas, 32, is married to internal medicine specialist Mike Pascas, a native of Williams Lake. They met as first-year medical students both went to Saskatoon for their residencies after earning their shingles as UNBC students. They have a have a three year-old boy and second child due in October.

“A shocking amount of my patients, when they hear I’m from Vancouver, ask me when I’m going back,” said Pascas who moved back to Prince George last September. “My husband and I are so happy to be back here.

“I really enjoyed living here when I was a student and I think all of us had a good experience in  medical school. This is the size of the community I wanted to come back to. We bought a house and we’re staying here for good and I think that’s a great part of the success of the NMP program.”

The NMP is a partnership between UNBC and UBC’s Faculty of Medicine MD undergraduate program, set up in response to the Condition Critical health rally in June 2000. It attracted 7,000 people to the building formerly known as the Prince George Multiplex (now CN Centre)and brought national attention to the health care problems facing northern and rural regions. The NMP has been around for 15 years and it is fulfilling its intent – producing doctors willing to live and work in Prince George and northern BC communities.

Although she’s only been on the job for a little more than a month, Benoit is already familiar with the constraints on gynecological procedures that add to wait times for patients and says the proposed surgical tower addition at UHNBC would alleviate a lot of those concerns. Many of those procedures can be done with out-patient care without impacting operating room resources or requiring overnight hospitalization. But without the additional space and staffing a new tower would bring that is not possible in the existing 70-year-old building.

“A lot of what we do on the gynecology side is surgical, and we share those resources with all the other surgical specialists,” said Benoit “It’s just (a lack of) resources with operating room time and infrastructure. Space is an issue, time is an issue, and staffing is an issue.”

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