A farm boy and medicine: A tribute to Dr John Pawlovich Sr.

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 57 , No. 6 , July August 2015 , Pages 251-252 The Good Doctor

“Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from.” —Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success


Malcolm Gladwell

The Story of Success

Perhaps it is fitting that a farm boy from Saskatchewan ultimately lived his professional life with the same work ethic that was exemplified for him under the open prairie sky over 7 decades ago. Holding the sweat-soaked reins of two exhausted work horses, Jessie and Nellie, John Pawlovich Sr. (a.k.a. JP) learned early in life what it was to be in harness. Little did he realize this would prove to be the metaphor that would define his professional life. An unrelenting drive and spirit embodied with a love of the land and people around him propelled the son of Polish and Russian immigrants to pursue a medical career path very few have trodden. The harness is coming off 55 years later for the last time. There is no more plow to pull, ground to break, or wheat to stook. The time to rest, reflect, and pay tribute is here.

Like a lot of youthful spirits in this world JP became attracted to his ultimate career path at a young age. His personal encounter with the country doctor riding his snow machine through bone- chilling winter conditions to help a sick child was what captured his imagination in cold, rural Saskatchewan. It was an image out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and JP knew that kind of adventurous life was for him. So off into the world he went to get it.

In 1955 he entered medical school at the University of Saskatchewan. This was a new world of wonder and intrigue for the farm boy from Blaine Lake. His father would often remind him to enjoy his “holiday” at university—the real work was waiting for him back on the farm! Maybe that was the motivation that drove JP to successfully graduate with his MD degree in 1959. The following year the young medical graduate headed to Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu to complete a 1-year internship. It was the beginning of a love affair with the islands in the sun. His connectedness with Hawaii and its people grew and remains strong to this day. After completing his residency it was back to the mainland, where JP spent the next 12 months in Saskatoon sharpening his knowledge and skills in advanced obstetrics and general surgery. JP’s internal compass was pointing him toward rural Canada and he knew he wanted to go armed with the tools necessary to be successful as a rural physician. And then the real story began.

In the summer of 1961 John and Marion Pawlovich arrived in Spirit River, Alberta—a dot on the rural map between the larger centres of Dawson Creek and Grand Prairie. Here JP and Marion had four children (Catherine, Anna, Paula, and John) and established roots and connections in the local area that have remained in their hearts and souls long after their departure. Together with his classmate from Saskatchewan, Dr Art Laventure, JP set to establish a new standard of service for the small farming community of northern Alberta. Medical practice was a tapestry of clinic and hospital time, house calls, all-hours emergency care, hair-raising obstetrical cases, anesthesia, veterinary medicine, and his most beloved pastime of all, general surgery. The young doctors collaborated on many vexing cases and supported one another like comrades in the field of battle. There was nothing these two would not do for one another, their families, or their community. Their relationship with Spirt River and the people blossomed over the 7 years JP was there. It was a special time. Some might say it was the golden time of general practice. Whatever it was, goosebumps grow on my skin as I now sit and listen to the tales of the young medical graduates taking turns giving anesthetics and performing surgery in this small northern community. Spirit River left an emotional tattoo on JP and his family members. It is an invisible tattoo worn proudly by all.

In the late 1960s, John and Marion thought the time was right to make a move. As fate would have it, an aging Dr Harry Cannon of Abbotsford, BC, was advertising for a replacement GP surgeon. JP responded to the advertisement, and in 1968 the Pawlovich family arrived in the beautiful and relatively tropical central Fraser Valley. This would be the first time in JP and Marion’s life in Canada that owning a snow shovel was considered optional. So began a journey over many decades of an immensely rewarding and exciting life in this new part of the country; a home where the people and the land of the Fraser Valley would become so entwined into JP’s living fabric that he knew he would never move again. The Cannon Clinic was his new professional home.

JP was rarely satisfied with his surgical skills; he always wanted to advance and improve. So in 1971 he journeyed to the Cook County Hospital in Chicago where he learned vaginal hysterectomies and laparoscopy for gynecological procedures. When he arrived back in BC he would be the only physician in the Fraser Valley performing laparoscopic procedures. This was after he purchased the equipment for the MSA Hospital at his own expense and performed scores of procedures with no means to bill for his work since there was no fee code at the time. “You do what needs to be done!” is a sentiment commonly expressed by JP. He is not an individual to let barriers slow down progress. Many colleagues would come to Abbotsford to learn this new procedure from him.

In 1976 he headed to Harvard Medical School in Boston for more general surgery training. JP served the community of Abbotsford with an exceptional list of surgical procedures: cesarean sections, tonsillectomies, abdominal and vaginal hysterectomies, hernia repairs, vasectomies, circumcisions, varicose vein surgery, bladder suspensions, vaginal repairs, tubal ligations, cholecystectomies, carpal tunnel surgery, forceps deliveries, hand procedures, breast surgery for cancerous as well as benign tumors, and bowel resections, to name a few. In the early 1990s he learned the new technique to remove the gallbladder by laparoscopic means.

The relationship JP had with his patients was so deep and special that many expressly requested his surgical skills. And his surgical practice was only one element in the package of general practice services JP offered his patients. He defined family practice—general practice as it was formerly known. From cradle to grave, he did it all. He received his certification in family medicine from the College of Family Physicians of Canada in 1972 and received his fellowship in 1984.

JP remarried in 1979 to Anda, and they celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary in May. The couple are long-time Abbotsford residents and remain deeply connected with this wonderful Fraser Valley community. Travel remains one of their great ambitions and they are routinely plotting their next destination together.

Between adventures, the grandparents attend the many functions of their respective families. The long list of family members and their numerous activities will continue to keep them entertained deep into their retirement years.

That farm boy from the Prairies won’t be going out into the field tomorrow to be in harness, only to smile and reflect on how he has left this profession. There is nothing left to give. The countless relationships with family, peers, patients, and community members built over 5½ decades will continue to nurture JP’s spirit long after this day turns into the next. Dr Seuss said it best: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened!”

John Pawlovich, MD. A farm boy and medicine: A tribute to Dr John Pawlovich Sr.. BCMJ, Vol. 57, No. 6, July, August, 2015, Page(s) 251-252 - The Good Doctor.



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