Dr. Nadine Caron is Canada’s first female First Nations’ surgeon and one of the first to attend medical school in the country. Since graduating she’s worked tirelessly as a surgeon, a doctor, a mentor and an advocate. Her passion for what she does shows.
“You have to be in it for the right reasons … How I explain it to undergrad students is you have to be in it to the point where if you get knocked down you can’t wait to get back up,” said Caron.
Her path to a career in medicine wasn’t a result of knowing from a young age what she wanted to do but it came from the strength of her family and her love of basketball.
Caron grew up with strong values and support from her family. Her mother grew up on a reserve in Ontario and went to a residential school. She says she gained a great deal of strength from her mother.
“My mom … became a teacher, she was the first student to graduate from that residential school and then to go on to post-secondary education … certainly I learnt a lot from that,” Caron said.
She also learned a lot from her Italian immigrant father and her brothers. She says she is still learning from them all and they help shape who she is as a doctor and as a person every day.
“My parents in particular, but also my three brothers, they are incredible supports. They keep me humble,” Caron said.
Armed with the strong values and courage to believe in herself instilled by her family, Caron became a star basketball player for the women’s team at Simon Fraser University. She says it was ultimately the love of the game that led her to her love of medicine.
As she approached graduation she asked herself, “What’s going to fill the days and the hours in the gym with the basketball team and my colleagues and my friends and my coach.”
After her team competed in the United States, she had an opportunity to shadow a doctor. Within the first few hours, she was hooked.
“All of a sudden I realized that the operating room was going to be my next basketball court,” Caron said.
Today she practices in Prince George, B.C., where her enthusiasm for her patients and the practice of medicine is evident. When she enters the room before performing surgery, she immediately puts her patients at ease with her calm competence and cheerful greetings.
“The reason people will drive 17 hours to see her and nobody else but her is because of the kind of care she provides,” said Dr. Martin Schechter, a colleague and the co-director of the UBC Centre for Excellence in Aboriginal Health.
Caron is not just a physician, she is also a teacher and innovator. She teaches with the University of Northern British Columbia’s medical school and with her passion for rural medicine she is now focusing more on how to help bring better care and inclusion in medicine to patients in the North.
Recently Caron began spearheading a new initiative: The Northern Biobank, a first in North America.
Biobanks store and document tissue samples from patients and they have become vital to medical research and potential advancements. The problem, all are based in urban centres, meaning the research and samples reflect only those populations.
“Right now a lot of the times there are these amazing questions that some of my patients or their family members bring in from these Northern or First Nation communities and it’s heartbreaking cause you know in the end it’s a great question,” Caron said.
The biobank initiative was announced in April and once it is fully up and running, it will be housed at UNBC.
Caron says that as they enter the next phase, they are hoping that the Northern Biobank will also include the first-ever aboriginal bio bank.
“I think what makes her a hero to me, an everyday hero, is that she’s doing so many things. With the federal government, she’s on some boards, she works incredibly hard and yet she is also in her clinic and the operating room every week,” said Schechter.
But she also actively works as a mentor and role model. She regularly speaks to youth and medical students and helps guide them. She also works with aboriginal youth as part of the Johns Hopkins University Visions Quest Program.
“When it comes to being First Nations, I try to balance that sense of responsibility and try to shift it when I can from being a role model to being a mentor,” said Caron.
Her message is always one of positivity and hope. “I think sometimes we get lost in the statistics and forget that the numerator and denominator are actually people’s daughters, sons and mothers and fathers and that’s important and make sure they realize that there are people who do care in the community and outside the community,” said Caron.
Dr. Marco Marra, a colleague and friend who is also the director at the Genome Sciences Centre, BC Cancer Agency, says that Caron’s drive, care and love of what she does is inspirational.
“She’s an incredible role model in so many different ways. Not only to First Nations but women, to people who aspire to be physicians, people who aspire to address social inequity and I think she’s been very effective in that regard,” said Marra.
Caron says she’s excited about the future and is now devoting time to working with the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Excellence in Aboriginal Health to help improve the quality of care for the aboriginal community as well.
“I guess overall my goal is to keep going to keep doing it and not lose the passion I have to do it,” said Caron.