Family medicine is one of those unique careers where you get to form a strong relationship with patients throughout their lifetime. The longstanding relationships that family doctors get to have with their patients is a true privilege.
It's 10 a.m. and Dr. Allison Farfus (BSc '17) arrives home after finishing a 26-hour call shift at the hospital. Her face is marked from her mask’s straps and her hands are cracked from hand washing, sanitizing, and donning and doffing of personal protective equipment. She was able to catch a few hours of sleep in the rare free moments between patient encounters. During this last shift alone, she saw numerous patients, sharing life’s best or most challenging moments with many, all unique, paramount and confidential. For Allison this day was not a sacrifice or obligation. It was a privilege, and Allison knows with certainty, she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.
Allison is a resident doctor in the rural family medicine residency program through the University of Alberta. She is currently on a six-month rural rotation that integrates rural family medicine with internal medicine, obstetrics, gynecology and emergency medicine. Depending on her schedule, she usually wakes up early and heads to the hospital to check on the inpatients she helps care for. Afterword, she will head to the family medicine clinic to see patients that are scheduled throughout the day. Being on call means that Allison must be flexible. “I may get called away from the clinic to help deliver a baby at the hospital. I often have emergency medicine shifts throughout the week. The days are diverse, which is nice. We never get bored,” she adds with a smile.
Allison doesn’t remember a particular moment that led her to medicine. “My kindergarten yearbook does say that I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. But I changed my mind a lot in middle school and high school.” While Allison wasn't always sure of her career path, she always liked science, biology, problem-solving, working under pressure and in team environments. But most important to her, "I knew I wanted to be able to talk to people, hear their stories and find a connection.”
Having grown up in the rural mountain community of the Crowsnest Pass, Allison aspired for a career where she wouldn't be confined to a city. “I always knew I wanted to return to a rural community and serve rural populations in some way,” she explains.
This realization brought her to uLethbridge as it was close to home and family and she had heard great things about the university itself. “The more I began thinking about my future, the more I realized that rural family medicine ticked all of the boxes for me, so I made a switch partway through my undergrad degree to try and pursue medicine and I’m glad I did,” she adds. Allison completed her Bachelor of Science from uLethbridge in 2017 and was awarded the Faculty of Arts & Science Gold Medal. She immediately went on to medical school and completed her MD at the University of Calgary in 2020.
As a frontline worker during the pandemic, Allison has directly experienced changes to how society and hospitals function. “It can be anxiety-provoking when you’re on the frontline. We certainly take a lot of extra precautions,” she admits. Typically, resident doctors form close connections with one another, but with group meetings taking place virtually, residents work even harder to remain close as a cohort. She completed most of her textbook learning in medical school, but there are still academic days where residents discuss medical cases and attend supplemental lectures.
Residency is also where the transition to becoming more independent practitioners happens. Allison explains, “In medical school, there was a lot of oversight as learners. In residency, we have an appropriate mix of observation and independence to ensure we make the shift to become independent practitioners. It’s nice to have a preceptor to run things by and to help identify our weaknesses as residents.” As she nears the end of her training, Allison feels like there’s always more to know, while acknowledging that nobody can know absolutely everything. She pulls information from textbooks and medicine apps even at the hospital. “I have so many textbooks. I also have about 100 medicine apps on my phone!” she adds.
There is no such thing as an ordinary day in residency. Residents in her program are exposed to many areas of medicine and work in diverse learning environments. “I have done several emergency medicine electives, where I was involved in seeing a broad range of presentations in the emergency department, including acute medical situations and performing procedures,” she adds. At the beginning of the year, Allison began her anesthesia rotation, assisting in administering medications to people before their surgeries. On following rotations, she assisted in consultations before surgery, and cared for children and adult inpatients alike.
I always knew I wanted to return to a rural community and serve rural populations in some way
After working in Calgary during medical school and now in a rural location, Allison understands both. “A big difference between an urban and rural family medicine practice is the scope of practice. In the city, patients often have easier access to specialist care. In rural places, where you’re several hours from an urban centre, a rural family physician may be the only doctor available to provide care in multiple areas of medicine. You must keep up to date and be able to maintain your diverse skillset. You’re the jack of all trades as a rural family physician, which I find very interesting,” she explains. Allison hopes to have a full scope practice, complete with family medicine, prenatal care, pediatrics, geriatrics, palliative care, addictions and hospitalist medicine. She adds, “I am also very passionate about emergency medicine. I’m sure I will incorporate that into my practice in a large way.
The most meaningful part of her career is also the most difficult. “Family medicine is one of those unique careers where you get to form a strong relationship with patients throughout their lifetime. I’ve worked with family physicians who delivered their patients as babies, and then provided care to them through childhood and adulthood, as well as to their partners, parents, nieces and nephews. You get to be an essential part of that patient’s and family's life. The longstanding relationships that family doctors get to have with their patients is a true privilege.” However, sharing the happiest and saddest days of people’s lives can take an emotional toll. “Even through residency, you get exposed to difficult experiences and you often take on your patients’ grief. It’s really important for me to focus on my own wellness throughout my training and career so that I can provide good care to others.”
As someone who’s been on both sides of the selection process for medical school, both as a candidate and a reviewer, Allison has some valuable advice for students interested in becoming medical doctors. “This does sound cliché, but it is really important to stay focused, work hard in school and to not lose sight of the end goal. Medical school applicants often apply multiple times before they finally get accepted. If it’s something that you know that you want to do, stick with it and work hard because it’s worth it in the end.”
Aside from getting good grades, another surprising piece of advice she shared is to complete a degree that you’re truly interested in. “No longer are the days where you need a traditional science background to get into medical school,” she adds. In fact, many of her colleagues have backgrounds in music and the arts. “Do what you actually enjoy. Never do anything solely for the sake of getting into medical school. Do it because you’re passionate about it. Do things that make you unique. That will help you shine on your application.”
On her days off, Allison can be found snowboarding, trail-running, hiking, or cross-country skiing, and you’d never guess the calibre and depth of work she did the day before. She loves the mountains and outdoors and was able to do part of her medical school training in the Yukon. “Once I got there, I absolutely fell in love with it and never wanted to leave. I think about returning at some point in my practice.”
In the busy, stressful waterfall of hospital demands, Allison’s humble presence is a steady mountain range. Her genuine passion for patients’ stories, openness to a challenge, resilience and selflessness are a reassurance to those she serves that they’re in good hands.