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A Fierce Advocate for her Patients

Council Award winner, Dr. Marie Gear
Council Award recipient, Dr. Marie Gear

Dr. Marie Gear

Dr. Marie Gear, a family practitioner in Teeswater, Ontario was presented with the Council Award at the College’s May 2019 meeting.

Dr. Gear recently retired after 39 years serving the people of the South Bruce Municipality and surrounding areas where she ran a busy family practice in Teeswater. She also worked in the Wingham and District Hospital doing in-patient care, anesthesia, emergency room coverage, obstetrics and surgical assist, as well as working at the hospital’s satellite oncology clinic. Her practice extended to patients in retirement homes and long-term care. Dr. Gear served on numerous hospital committees and as Chief of Staff at the Wingham hospital. She has also been a long-serving board member at the Wingham hospital and then on the Wingham-Listowel Memorial Hospital Alliance board.

Along the way, she gained the respect and admiration of the patients, colleagues and residents in her community. It was, in fact, the Mayor and Council of South Bruce who put forth her nomination, a testament to her being described as the “cornerstone of family medicine” in the community.

Dr. Gear has left an indelible mark on her community by being a fierce advocate for patients and for her commitment to system reform and improvement. She is credited with being instrumental in the development of a comprehensive and connected community health-care system in which primary care givers, hospitals, nursing home facilities and agencies coordinate patient care.

Patients point to her acts of professionalism, kindness and her profound effect on their lives as she guided them through both the best and worst of times.

We recently spoke to Dr. Gear about her career.

Have you always lived in the South Bruce area?
Not exactly. I was born and raised in Waterloo. But I spent weekends and every holiday at the family farm near Wingham. So, growing up, I got both the urban and rural experience. When I went to the University of Western Ontario for medical school, I continued to spend summers and holidays at the farm and had summer jobs at the Wingham hospital. The local doctors took me under their wing as one of their own – gradually increasing my responsibilities to match my medical training. When I finally qualified as a doctor, it was almost inevitable that they asked me to join the medical community upon the retirement of a local physician.

What strikes you as the most important aspect of an impactful rural medicine?
I think rural medicine uniquely positions physicians to positively influence not only our individual patient needs, but also the wider medical community. If you’re doing it right, you immediately become part of the whole medical landscape. You’re not only seeing patients in your practice and in the hospital, but you’re also connected with the hospital administration, local LHINs, CCACs and broader agencies to ensure the whole system is working together in quality, community care.

Obviously, we are lacking in the services available in larger centres, and that makes it even more crucial for rural doctors to get involved in the decision-making that shapes how we deliver services in our communities. So you attend regional meetings, fundraise, and develop relationships with health administrators, allied health professionals and agencies. If you don’t get involved, you may not like how things turn out.

I’ve learned that everyone has their own unique story and that you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to elder care.

Women now make up 54% of family physicians, but it was a different story when you went to medical school.
Yes it was. In the mid-70s there certainly weren’t as many women in medicine. My first year at Western coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of women enrolled in the medical school. There’s no doubt that we rocked the old, established order. When I started to work, I took over the practice of a much-loved, older male family physician in Teeswater, a small rural village. I was the first female doctor to set up practice in the community. Suffice it to say, my arrival stoked a bit of local interest and skepticism. But, to be honest, it didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off and even the most elderly patients soon accepted me. Interestingly, I was inundated with female patients who were new to the practice. They wanted to talk to a female professional about birth control, gynecological issues, and so on. Clearly, there had been a need for someone like me for a long time.

What has having a significant number of older patients in your practice taught you?

I’ve learned that everyone has their own unique story and that you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to elder care. Older patients are dealing with multiple comorbidities and needs that are not always apparent. So, you have to sit down with each patient and each family to find out what’s important to them and the best way to help. One patient of mine was a delightful old Irish gentleman who had many medical problems and was dying over a couple of years. He would often come to my office and I was never sure exactly of what he wanted. In the end, I realized he just wanted to talk of philosophy and the meaning of life. From then on, we always booked his appointments at the end of the day so we could have unrushed chats.

As you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
I’m gratified for the wonderful relationships built with patients over the years. It’s a privilege to watch patients and their families grow and to help them through challenges. I’m proud to have had a lead role in the establishment of the Wingham hospital’s oncology program and improving the inpatient referrals process from rural Ontario to London. But I’m most proud of the medical system we’ve created in South Bruce/North Huron with the hospitals, family health teams and allied health working together to provide coordinated and comprehensive care in our community.