In 2015, Dr. Tandi Wilkinson’s world came crashing down. The Nelson, British Columbia-based emergency medicine physician with a generalist background developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being the sole physician provider in a medical disaster in a remote Arctic community.
“I was on a ship going through the Northwest Passage and we stopped in at Pond Inlet” she recalls. “I got called to the health centre. They don’t normally have a physician there. A family of six had been in a tent fire and they were critically ill. I spent 12 hours looking after them with minimal resources.”
A week after leaving the community, Dr. Wilkinson was devastated to discover that most of the family had died.
“I felt like it was my fault that they died, although I knew in my head that it wasn’t,” she says. “I was devastated. I looked around for support, but couldn’t find what I needed at the time. I talked to a counselor and carried on, but six months later, I wasn’t functioning and needed time off work. I then spent a long time trying to understand my experience.”
The search led Dr. Wilkinson to the literature on physician wellness where she made a startling discovery.
“I ticked all the boxes for someone who’s going to get PTSD—remote location, the death of children, late career, etcetera—and I was like, ‘Well, that isn’t even a surprise that it happened to me…how come I wasn’t educated about this?’ I talked to my colleagues…no one really had any understanding of it.”
I ticked all the boxes for someone who’s going to get PTSD—remote location, the death of children, late career, etcetera—and I was like, ‘Well, that isn’t even a surprise that it happened to me…how come I wasn’t educated about this?’ I talked to my colleagues…no one really had any understanding of it.Dr. Tandi Wilkinson
Quest for understanding leads to the Thriving Project
After being diagnosed with PTSD, Dr. Wilkinson was inspired to conduct her own research on informal peer support through the Rural Scholars Program. She found that, although informal peer support isn’t recognized in the medical literature, participants in her research project deemed it essential for continuing their rural medicine practice.
“It just made me really angry that I was so unprepared for something predictable,” she says. “But what really surprised me most was that, I’d say, 90 percent or more of my healing came from outside the structure of medicine. So medicine, medical knowledge, medical culture didn’t have much to offer me on how to recover from an experience like that. But there’s a lot of what I like to call ancient universal wisdom, wisdom from many different sources, that had a ton to offer me.”
Now, Dr. Wilkinson is passing along what she learned from her experience and research to her rural colleagues by launching the Thriving Project with the Rural Coordination Centre of BC. As physician lead for the project, she works with RCCbc’s Bree Loeffler, to facilitate unique wellness offerings for the province’s rural healthcare providers.
“PTSD isn’t something everyone will have, but most of us will have experiences in medicine that will bring us to our knees at some point,” she says. “I wanted to take what I learned and offer that to others in the hope no one else has to go through what I went through. I’d like to think that the generation of physicians coming up behind me will be a lot more prepared for the difficult aspects of our work.”
Creating a safe, supportive and inspiring community for rural healthcare providers
The Thriving Project supports and enhances the wellness of rural healthcare providers in British Columbia. It fosters connections and builds a community of practice, which they can draw upon for learning, support, solace and inspiration.
“I think of the Thriving Project offering as ‘experiences of wellness’, more than education,” she says. “It’s not somebody talking about wellness or a bunch of slides on why you should eat better. It’s really aimed at looking at aspects of medical culture that sometimes are really harmful to us, such as our ideas of perfectionism, our fear of failure…things we don’t want to talk about, but that are all part of our lives. And giving people resources and tools to help during those times.”
It’s not somebody talking about wellness or a bunch of slides on why you should eat better. It’s really aimed at looking at aspects of medical culture that sometimes are really harmful to us, such as our ideas of perfectionism, our fear of failure…things we don’t want to talk about, but that are all part of our lives. And giving people resources and tools to help during those times.Dr. Tandi Wilkinson
The Thriving Project will facilitate a number of wellness offerings, including Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction with Dr. Rahul Gupta and Compassion Cultivation Training with Dr. Shireen Mansouri, in 2023.
And, on the first Monday of each month from 7–8:30 pm, the Thriving Project will offer free monthly drop-in sessions for rural healthcare providers via Zoom. The “Providers Thriving Together” series, as it’s called, will offer brief presentations on wellness-related themes by rural peers from across British Columbia. A facilitated discussion will follow each presentation, allowing participants an opportunity to experience camaraderie and peer support in the service of activating their collective resilience. Interested healthcare providers can drop into the sessions that interest them by completing a simple registration form—there’s no obligation to attend them all.
“The monthly Providers Thriving Together sessions are intended to create safe spaces for practitioners to share their own experiences and wisdom for how they’ve navigated difficult circumstances,” says Dr. Wilkinson. “I find that most of the practitioners that I have these conversations with have so much to offer their colleagues—so much wisdom and beautiful humanity.”
The first Providers Thriving Together session will be held on January 9, 2023, when Dr. Wilkinson will speak about “Informal peer support: How deepening connections with colleagues can transform your work”. The session will be facilitated by Drs. Rahul Gupta and Jen Roger. Other sessions, led by rural providers, are also scheduled for February (self compassion), March (relaxing into system change) and April (growing resilience within close relationships).
Dr. Wilkinson also encourages providers to come forward to present at drop-in sessions for the remainder of the year. “We’re looking for presenters who are passionate about a theme and would like to present it to their colleagues at an upcoming session in 2023,” she says.
- Visit the Thriving Project webpage for more information about the Thriving Project and to see the Providers Thriving Together schedule.
- To sign up for the Providers Thriving Together series, complete and submit this simple registration form.
- If you’d like to present at an upcoming Providers Thriving Together session, or ask general questions about the Thriving Project, email the Thriving Project.