Camrose family physician, Dr. Chris Nichol, never pictured himself in a rural practice as he worked his way through medical school.
Neither did his then soon-to-be wife, Susan.
“I was born and raised in a big city,” said Dr. Nichol, during a break from his hectic schedule at the Smith Clinic in Camrose.
“When I got into med school, we were asked to do rural electives. In residency, it became mandatory and that’s when I kind of opened my eyes to rural medicine.”
“At first, I was not too keen on it,” admitted wife Susan, who grew up in the Vancouver area. “But I knew it was something he was interested in and I thought, ‘well, maybe I could do it — if it’s not too far away from a Walmart.’”
It’s been 18 years since Dr. Nichol and Susan stayed for a few weeks in a small, on-call physician structure at the St. Mary’s Hospital parking lot in Camrose. It was a successful test drive of the community as a place to set up practice. “We thought we’d give it a whirl,” said Susan. “The town was really pretty and it was such a beautiful couple of weeks when we were here.”
Colleagues and members of the community quickly became their family away from home as Dr. Nichol built his career over the next two decades, establishing roots in the community southeast of Edmonton.
The 2017 recipient of the RhPAP Rural Physician Award of Distinction, Dr. Nichol is modest about his long list of achievements.
“It means I’m probably doing a good job,” he chuckles when asked about the honour. “It’s great to be recognized for things that you do, but, certainly, this is not my award. I work with a bunch of great people, and, without those great teams, no one would recognize the work that I do. This award is as much theirs as it is mine.”
He also credits Susan, and her colour-coded calendar, for keeping him on track with commitments for work, family, band, and volunteering. “She keeps me organized; without her my life would probably be a mess,” he confessed.
His colleagues and community leaders maintain that Dr. Nichol’s work has been instrumental in enhancing health care in the area, as well as improving life in general for the entire Camrose region.
“As a rural physician, you need to be part of a community as well as part of a hospital,” said St. Mary’s Hospital emergency room manager Michelle Solverson, who has worked with him for several years. “Dr. Nichol has really embraced Camrose. He gives it 100 per cent and I really commend him for that.”
Over the years, Dr. Nichol has played an integral role in setting up the Camrose Primary Care Network (PCN) and currently serves as its lead physician. He’s been a key supporter of the heart and stroke clinic in Camrose. He has worked with the Canadian College of Emergency Medical Services to establish and service an on-site “hospital” during the Big Valley Jamboree music festival. He has also taught a program for junior high students to discourage drinking and driving, and participates on numerous boards and committees.
Two years ago, Dr. Nichol launched the Young Medical Minds (YMM) Program to give local grade eight students an opportunity to explore various aspects of health care in the hope that some may pursue it as a future career and possibly work in Camrose.
“He is the epitome of a Primary Care Network champion,” said Stacey Strilchuk, executive director for the Camrose PCN. “He will go into the community and listen to patients, stakeholders, and community partners, and get a really good understanding of what is being asked, not just from physicians, but from a multi-disciplinary team approach.”
Strilchuk said Dr. Nichol’s vision in the mid-2000s of a PCN offering team-based care was “certainly pioneering in the type of model the province is now wanting us to achieve.”
Leanne Grant, chair of the Camrose Attraction and Retention Committee, and AHS area director for Camrose, Flagstaff and Beaver County, said Dr. Nichol’s contributions have had a positive impact on the community.
“Dr. Nichol is passionate not only about community but best practice,” she said. “Beyond doing a great job as a family physician, he spends a lot of time educating himself and building relationships. There are just so many projects that he takes on that are similar to other physicians, but one of the things we’ve noticed, he’s just an innovator at looking how to get rural health expanded with the resources we have. I’m not sure when he sleeps, but he’s very passionate about the things that he does.”
Dr. Nichol’s colleagues also see his dedication to his patients, and desire to mentor every day in the clinic.
“He’s very encouraging. He can get you onboard with anything if he says the right words,” said Amanda MacDonald, his nursing assistant. “He’s just the best down-to-earth doctor.”
Smith Clinic patient care coordinator, health coach, and prevention practitioner, Maya Rathnabalu, concurs.
“He’s very professional and I think people feel like they can trust him. I remember when he would teach me something, and he would hold the light for me, even though he was the physician. It’s those little things that really make a difference, although he may not realize it. It’s just part of his personality.”
Dr. Nichol’s enthusiasm has also rubbed off on his 14-year-old son Chad. He joined his dad in the YMM Program, and has his mind set on becoming a radiologist.
As a child, Chad always jumped at the chance to skip television on Saturday mornings to tag along with dad during hospital rounds.
“You learn a lot being a physician’s son,” he said. “Being around him made it very interesting. He knows the people he works with, it’s not just a one-and-done type of thing with him. He’s a great physician.”
His 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, is proud of her father, and sees the positive role he plays in the community.
Tuesday nights are reserved for Dr. Nichol and his wife, a longstanding date night which began in their single years. He’s a trumpet player for the Camrose Community Band, while Susan plays trombone.
Afterwards, they enjoy catching a movie when possible, but work is always not far from his mind.
One year, he was scheduled to work in the ER the same night as he was performing in a local music festival. Dr. Nichol’s performance was running behind and, in the meantime, his pager went off. He ended up heading to the ER rather than the stage.
“That’s just the way it is,” he said. “The band played on.”
- Article by Lorena Franchuk; Video by Bobby Jones