Growing up in rural Ontario on a small farm, about an hour’s drive from Toronto, Stephanie Young was always drawn towards a career in medicine.
“I think I always wanted to be a physician,” Young says. “Going through medical school interviews they asked, ‘What was the moment you knew you wanted to be a physician?’ I don’t think I really had one of those moments. It was something that I always seemed to want – to be able to help people, and I was always a science nerd. I’ve been intrigued by the body and how it works, and the sort of detective work of figuring it out.”
Her journey to become a physician took a more scenic route, which has eventually led her to the new leadership role in the Saskatchewan Health Authority as Physician Executive for Integrated Northern Health.
Young spent one semester of her final year of high school enrolled in the Ontario Science Centre’s Science School. There, she and her classmates focused on science classes and were able to participate in some research work and teach children during their visits to the science centre. She then attended McGill University in Montreal, completing a Bachelor of Science specializing in anatomy and cell biology in May 2008.
During one summer, while still university, Young was living in Toronto when her journey took another turn that eventually led her to northern Saskatchewan. She met her future husband, Jeff Irvine, who was doing post-graduate studies in Toronto. Eventually, they both moved to La Ronge – Irvine’s home town. He’s the son of long-time La Ronge physician and Medical Health Officer Dr. James Irvine.
Spending summers of her youth at camps and then as a counsellor at those camps in the Muskoka area of Ontario, Stephanie Young developed a love of the Canadian Shield landscape of forest and lakes. She often spends time hiking in northern Saskatchewan, where the landscape and sunsets are similar.
Both Young and Irvine were planning to go to medical school. However, there was significant competition for entry in Ontario, and she was still considered an out-of-province applicant for the University of Saskatchewan. They decided to explore other options that would mean both pursuing a medical degree and seeking adventure.
They were accepted at the Ross University School of Medicine, Dominica, West Indies in 2008, an American medical school. They spent 18 months of their medical training in Dominica, and the remainder of the three years in Wisconsin.
“We thought it would be an adventure to go and experience medical school in the third- world,” Young says. “It was also an opportunity to hone our diagnostic skills without all of the First World’s machinery such as labs and diagnostics.”
There was also a different experience during the two years spent in Wisconsin, she says. “We got to see the opposite of the third-world experience with U.S. medicine.”
After completing medical school, Young and Irvine were accepted into the family medicine residency program through the University of Saskatchewan in La Ronge, which would allow them to return to northern Saskatchewan as they had planned.
“The practice of medicine in the north is one of the most unique ones that we have found,” Young says. “We knew that being in La Ronge and the practice model here was something we wanted to come back to. The model they have in the north is quite good for a lot of reasons. It allows for flexibility for the physician in terms of work commitments.”
Dr. Stephanie Young, along with her husband Dr. Jeff Irvine and her son Atticus enjoy a hike on the Nutpoint Trail near La Ronge. Dr. Young spent summers during her youth at camps and then as a counsellor at those camps in the Muskoka area of Ontario, where she developed a love of the Canadian Shield landscape of forest and lakes.
Young says that there are many challenges to the practice. There can be a lack of resources – both in terms of people and other supports – serving a vast and complex area. Patients often struggle with access due to transportation challenges.
“I think the amazing part here is the people and the communities. The people who work here love it. They love the culture and the geography. I think the teams in the north are so strong because they are willing to do whatever they have to in order to make things better.”
As physician executive for Integrated Northern Health, she believes part of that role is helping others in the organization understand the complexities of living and working in the north.
Young says the new role of physician executive and being part of the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s leadership team continues to evolve. Being part of the dyad with Andrew McLetchie, vice president for Integrated Northern Health, has been very positive during the first year of the new structure. She says that she would not be able to do this job without him and is grateful for having worked with him for three years prior to them taking on these new roles.
Young sees herself bringing to the executive the perspective of someone working and living in the north, as well as being a practicing physician. She also continues to participate in on-call coverage for the La Ronge Health Centre.
“Being on the front line and, for example, having difficulty making a referral and then being able to take that experience and go to the executive leadership and say, ‘this isn’t working because it didn’t work for me.’ It is an opportunity to point out when our system is not working for our patients and our staff based on that experience in the clinical setting,” Young says. “I think that’s why it makes sense for physicians to continue in clinical roles.”
Dr. Stephanie Young and members of the health care team in Pinehouse delivered a baby in September. In this photo just before mom and child were transported to a hospital are (from left): Registered Nurse Dre Erwin, Dr. Young, Kanika Natogmagon and her son Tavis, and Kanika’s sister-in-law Amy Lariviere. Missing from the photo is Tex Bernabe, another Registered Nurse who assisted with the delivery.
Young was just coming back from a maternity leave when she started the physician executive role. She focused on that for the first two months before resuming her clinical work. It gave her some time to figure out the new role, but she was also happy to get back into the clinic.
“I’m grateful for my clinical time, that I still get to be in the hospital and taking care of patients. It can be a refreshing part of my job. I was taught for 10-plus years on how to be a physician. It is something that I’m comfortable with. I’m comfortable that it’s something that I know the answers to, and if I don’t know the answers, I know how to find them.”
She got to know the challenges and community needs in La Ronge and area through involvement in the community judo club she and her husband operate, as well as other community activities. That work helped her understand the health status issues because of that community involvement.
“I feel like I have a good understanding of the La Ronge area, but this isn’t just La Ronge and the northeast,” she says. “I’m learning and working to understand the complexities of more communities so we can identify their needs and what support and services they require. Ultimately, the people of Saskatchewan deserve high quality and timely access to healthcare, no matter where they live in the province, and that is what we are working towards every day.”