LITTLE CURRENT—A suitably relaxed Dr. Dieter Poenn sits in his chair in The Expositor’s office fresh from his rounds at Manitoulin Centennial Manor to talk about… his retirement? Dr. Poenn laughs, apparently this whole retirement thing can be a work in progress when you’ve spent a career practicing rural medicine.
“I’m still doing the Manor and replaced a few shifts in the ER (Manitoulin Health Center emergency room) because they were understaffed,” he said. “It was a bit difficult to find replacements. The ripple effects of the pandemic might have something to do with that. “I don’t know exactly why,” he warns.
Dr. Poenn arrived on the island to practice medicine in 1988, with the original intention of taking over the practice of the late Dr. Jack Bailey.
“I graduated in 1986 and then did a two-year residency at Queen’s,” he said. He and his wife Siska (the couple met and married in 1982, when Dr. Poenn was still in medical school) visited the island (and some North Shore communities) while he was still in residence. “Initially, we were going to give it a few years to see how it goes.” Like many who dip their toes into island life, the couple quickly found themselves hooked.
The island had a lot to offer, especially given its proximity to Killarney. Dr. Poenn is a kayaker, well, at this time in his life, “just” a kayaker would be a major understatement. He spent 12 years on the national team, traveling across Canada, the United States and even Europe. Not only was kayaking an important part of the life of Dr. Poenn, who began his travels with his father when he was quite young, but the sport was to play a very valuable role in his medical career, he explains. .
As a national A-card athlete, Dr. Poenn received both a living allowance and paid tuition. A nice tuition increase, as any student would confirm. Although his competitive days are well in the rearview mirror, kayaking and canoeing (and Killarney) are close to his heart.
Dr. Poenn almost followed a very different career path after high school. His undergraduate degree included psychology and he was working as a social worker and was seriously considering a path to psychiatry when he mentioned this plan to his counselor, who pointed out the pitfalls of finding a job in this field. “It was tenuous at best,” recalls Dr. Poenn. “He said ‘before you go down that road, why don’t you check the medicine. “”
This was fortuitous advice, as Dr. Poenn discovered that he did not like psychology at all. What piqued his interest was rural medicine. At that time, there was not really a section dedicated to rural medicine in most medical schools. Queen’s was the only option. He got a taste of this style of practice in Sharbot Lake, a small community north of Kingston.
A reading of the underserved areas program pointed Dr. Poenn north, and then there was all that whitewater kayaking hooking. Dr. Roy Jeffery and Dr. Jack Bailey interviewed him and something about this duo struck him right away. “No one was wearing white coats and ties,” laughed Dr. Poenn. “I had just arrived from Queen’s, where everyone wore white coats and ties.” This lack of pretension on the part of his interviewers resonated.
And then there was Killarney and White Water, where Dr Poenn and his wife Siska had celebrated their honeymoon. “It’s one of the best places in the province for canoeing,” he says.
That’s not to say the Belleville boy’s integration into the island has gone smoothly. Although he was hired to replace Dr. Bailey when he retired, Dr. Bailey did not actually retire. “Those were the days of rental fees,” Dr. Poenn said. “I was supposed to take over Dr. Bailey’s practice, but Dr. Bailey was still practicing. I found myself asking “what am I doing here?” “It only took a few years,” Dr. Poenn said.
Finding housing was just as difficult in Manitoulin then as it is now. “There were no places to rent, no places to buy, we ended up building a house,” he said. The Poenns went on to raise four children in Manitoulin, one of whom, Jonathan, is now in his second year at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and plans to settle on the island and follow in the footsteps from his father.
Practicing rural medicine as a general practitioner in the days of Dr Jack Bailey and when Dr Poenn arrived here presented constant, almost daily challenges unlike those of most urban doctors. Working in the emergency room, the wide range of illnesses and injuries that come with a rural practice offered a world far different from the typical nine-to-five experience in an urban practice. Even with pioneers like Dr. Bailey leading the way, this trail was still a daunting journey for a young doctor just starting out in the field.
“I knew I had huge shoes to fill,” Dr. Poenn said of Dr. Bailey. “He had immense respect in First Nations communities. But looking back on his experiences and how he found himself embraced by those same communities, Dr Poenn said he felt he had to a large extent “fulfilled that mandate”.
Dr. Bailey was named Family Physician of the Year during his tenure as Island physician, an honor that Dr. Poenn himself received in 2018.
“It’s kind of validation to find myself, all these years later, receiving the same award,” Dr. Poenn said. While delivering his acceptance speech (a task he admits to finding more daunting than most ER stays), Dr. Poenn found strength in the eagle feather he was holding, a gift of an elder from Wiikwemkoong. “I felt looking back, I did a good job too,” he said.
The work of a rural family physician has changed dramatically for the better in recent years, notes Dr. Poenn. The new approach of family health teams, with nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and the connectivity and depth of electronic medical records has made this road much easier.
Those two years of learning about the land turned into five, then 10, then 20 and now, 34 years later, Dr. Poenn and his wife plan to continue living on the island. The Poenns went on to raise a family and make a life with no regrets.
“We’ve thought about leaving a few times over the years,” he admits. Opportunities for career advancement were plentiful in urban centers like Ottawa, but when these career opportunities and options were weighed against what they had in Manitoulin, not all of them were up to par.
“‘Why do it?’ we wondered,” Dr. Poenn said.
One of the things he is most proud of during his career is his ability to maintain a work-life balance with his family, which he says would have been more difficult in an urban practice.
The community support, the special feeling that enveloped him in Wiikwemkoong and other island communities, “it was affirmative.”
Dr. Poenn is involved with NOSM and said he hopes other Island youth will take the path to health services because the need for health care professionals who like to live in small communities rural has increased since he entered the profession.
“Right now we have applicants from Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury, but very few small rural communities like the ones here on Manitoulin Island,” he said.
The path to a medical profession isn’t as daunting as one might think, Dr. Poenn noted, pointing to his own undergraduate degrees. “Go ahead and get an arts degree,” he advised, “take some science classes and apply.”
With a little hard work and dedication to the goal, a rewarding career could very well be yours.
In the meantime, Dr Poenn said he looked forward to enjoying his retirement, whenever it comes into full effect. With a reputation as one of the best diagnosticians on the island, Dr. Poenn will certainly be missed, but after a long and dedicated career serving Manitoulin and its residents, it will be a well-deserved retirement.