By John Francis

“Dr Dave” is retiring; well, not exactly. We’ll get to that. But Dr Shannon Vanderstelt will be taking over his patients at the Peninsula Family Health Team.

Dr Dave Thomson joined the Peninsula Family Health Team in 1991, invited by Dr George Harpur. He had finished his MD — including some time on the peninsula during his residency — and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. George Harpur asked “Wanna come here for a little while?” 

That was 28 years ago. Dr Thomson feels that now is the perfect time to step back a bit and retire from Family Practice. Ministry of Health regulations limit the Peninsula Family Health Team to four doctors (Drs Appelton, Blau and Thomas are the other three) and there is a new doctor, eager to fill his position.

But it’s not exactly retirement. He will continue to work as a (SCUBA) diving medical officer and as a marine medical examiner and will continue to do minor surgeries at Tobermory. He will also continue to assist at surgeries at the Owen Sound hospital. But he hopes to spend a lot more time traveling, hiking, gardening and sailing (his boat didn’t even get wet this year).

He didn’t start out intending to be a doctor; that came later. He grew up on the family apple orchard at Waterdown, Ontario and joined the navy straight out of school. He joined as an Ordinary Seaman/trumpeter. Ten years later he was a Lieutenant Commander at Halifax, the commanding officer for several ships and a diving officer. Diving got him interested in medicine. The navy allowed him to switch into the Reserves and attend Medical School at Dalhousie eight months a year, then return to active duty for summer break. He finished his medical training at McMaster.

He is proud of the service that the health team has provided during his years on the peninsula and enthusiastic about the future. “We are really blessed,” he says, “to have found an appropriate transition — somebody who really wants to be here.” His sense of a blessing very much includes the fact that he can resign and pass the torch without feeling guilty.

He is excited about the medical system that has evolved on the peninsula. “The FHT is an incredible asset for the peninsula. With the Physicians, the Nurse Practitioners, the specialty nurses — it’s a well-functioning team.”

All the equipment belongs to the municipality. New doctors only need to bring a stethoscope and a computer. Retiring doctors don’t have to find a buyer for a lot of equipment. It makes for seamless transitions. 

The Peninsula Family Health Team is heavily involved with medical schools — all the docs are clinical teachers and act as Associate Professors specializing in Rural Family Health — and they encourage the schools to send undergrads here for a look-see and to send graduates here as residents. Most of the doctors that have practiced on the peninsula over the years first came here as residents, including all the current docs. The system makes it very easy for new doctors to come, but it’s the community that makes it a pleasure to practice here. “It’s a small but mighty community,” says Dr Dave; “community support makes it a very attractive place to work”.

His most vivid memories of medical practice here all involve that community support. The bus rollover is a perfect example; “People just showed up to do whatever was needed.” You didn’t have to ask them, they just showed up. It was the same way during all the other emergencies and rescues — people go the extra mile for their neighbours.

How much has medicine changed in 28 years? He laughs — where to start?

When he arrived, it was a long-distance phone call from Lion’s Head to Wiarton. He had an ambulance radio in his car, along with a defibrillator, oxygen, drugs and a medical toolkit. When the team got a new anaesthetic machine, the old one went to a museum. When you needed to find something out, you looked it up in the huge books that lived at the clinic. Now you do it all on your cellphone.

The Thomson family will continue to live in Lion’s Head; Jane still has three years to serve as Trustee at the Bluewater District School Board and Dave has no intention of abandoning his position as Remembrance Day trumpeter at Lion’s Head cenotaph.