What use is a family doctor in space?

Picture a Venn diagram with “Medical student/resident at McGill University” and “Canadian astronaut.” Incredibly, the circles intersect for three cases. When David Saint-Jacques makes it to space, he will follow a tradition set by Bob Thirsk and Dave Williams.

Montreal, Que.-based McGill has the oldest and one of the most famous medical schools in the country. The school was established in 1829 and has pushed medical as well as space frontiers; for example, the school’s website notes one faculty member used X-rays only four months after they were discovered in 1895.

Space wasn’t an option way back then, but Saint-Jacques certainly knew of his astronaut predecessors when doing his residency at the McGill-affiliated family medicine centre at St-Mary’s Hospital between 2005 and 2007. Maureen Doyle, then the postgraduate program co-ordinator, remembers David as a “great guy” who was liked by patients and staff alike.

“He was easy to work with and easy to teach, and obviously really enjoyed being a family doctor,” said Doyle in an interview for this site.

When David was working at Saint Mary’s, most residents were trained in family medicine (more specialties have been added today). This required the residents to be extremely proficient in conditions for all ages and all stages of life, ranging from pre-conception counselling to elder care, Doyle said.

While Doyle is not an expert in space medicine, she said one way that family medicine might prepare a doctor is the notion of always being prepared. Family doctors need to treat a range of conditions, and be able to shift quickly as different patients come in. This would also be useful for space exploration.

These types of physicians also need to exercise judgment. While there are guidelines and procedures to follow, the doctors must be adaptable if those guidelines and protocols don’t quite fit the medical condition. And like astronauts, the doctors must be able to work on their own and also flow effortlessly into teams as required.

Notably, David also focused on doing medical work in isolated situations, and after his time in McGill practiced medicine at Inuulitsivik Health Centre in Puvirnituq, Nunavik, on Hudson Bay.  Last week after his flight date was announced, David told reporters that he wanted to continue this sort of isolated medicine study while he is in space.

But Doyle didn’t know if David was thinking of that when he did his studies. She did say, however, that family doctors from McGill have gone on to many diverse careers, such as joining Doctors Without Borders or performing front-line research.

Top image: David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen during trauma training at McGill University in 2014. Credit: Canadian Space Agency

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