George Magee remembers his first day on the job at the Lakes District Hospital in 1968.
Newly-graduated as a physician and newly-wed to Bernice, the pair arrived in Burns Lake and were unpacking their belongings and moving into a house right across the street from the hospital.
Then the call came — a bad accident on the highway near Endako.
“I hadn’t even unpacked my equipment,” recalled Magee. “And I rushed across the street and people started to come in from the accident.”
“I did what I could but I needed help and phoned a [doctor] friend in Fraser Lake and another one in Smithers and said get in your cars and get here. Two hours later they were here.”
It was not only his first introduction to emergency medicine in Burns Lake but it was also his first intruction to the staff at the hospital.
“The nurses were amazing,” recalled Magee of that day.
Dealing with the accident victims was just the start of a decades-long career in the Lakes District now ending with Magee’s decision, at the age of 78, to retire.
From Port Colborne in Ontario, Magee obtained his medical education at the University of Toronto when he and Bernice decided to spend their honeymoon in the central interior after moving to Vancouver where Magee did an internship at Vancouver General.
Stopping in Vanderhoof, they became aware of an available practice but decided to keep driving west, ending up in Burns Lake where they learned another practice was for sale.
“By the time we got back to Prince George, we knew Burns Lake was where we wanted to be so I stopped and used a pay phone,” said Magee.
“The area had the environment we liked and I could practice medicine how I wanted to practice,” he said.
One of just two physicians in Burns Lake, Magee spent those first years being available any hour of the day or night for one week with the second doctor doing the same the next week.
It’s just what doctors did in those days, noted Magee.
The hospital was also a much busier place during his early years with 42 beds when he first came to Burns Lake and then expanding to 56 beds.
“That first hospital cost less than $ 1 million,” said Magee in noting the $55 million cost of the new hospital and its reduced bed count to less than 20.
As the years went on and as more physicians arrived in Burns Lake, Magee’s on-call requirements were reduced.
“Those younger people. I guess they took pity on me. ‘You old guy, you can go to bed,’” he said.
Of all of Magee’s medical work, he took the most pleasure in delivering babies.
“I’d estimate 2,000 babies,” said Magee. “The first year I did over 100 babies.”
And in many ways Magee regrets the decision by health authorities to discontinue the planned delivery of babies at the Lakes District Hospital, despite the facilities of the new facility.
“I don’t think I would have ever come here if I couldn’t deliver babies,” Magee noted.
The need for rural physicians to know obstetrics as well as surgery and anesthetics figured prominently in a publication Magee helped write more than 20 years ago as advice for young physicians considering working in smaller and more remote places.
Physicians of Magee’s era were attracted to smaller locations because they could practice a broad scope of medicine, using skills learned during training, something that’s now changed.
Doctors nowadays also don’t stay as long in smaller locations as they used to, he added.
“For the first 20 years I was here, the average stay of a doctor was 14 years. Now it’s five years,” Magee said. “Now they see opportunities elsewhere.”
Family situations may dictate moving to a larger centre and, in particular, doctors may want to move to those larger centres such as the Lower Mainland so they can buy property before it becomes too expensive.
The Magees have no immediate plans to move but will be visiting their children more often who now live elsewhere.
“This is our home and we’re part of the community,” said Magee.