The smell of decadent chocolate fills the air of Dr. Merrilee Brown’s kitchen as she expertly works at mixing and stirring her homemade brownie batter. “Sorry, I’m just baking for my son’s violin recital tonight,” she explains, not the slightest-bit frazzled.
Even with a demanding schedule that naturally comes from being a full-time wife, mother, family physician, medical teacher and an on-call emergency doctor, it is evident that Merrilee is completely in her element among all the chaos.
“I can be a ‘normal mom’ for the most part,” she assures. “I’m able to pick up the kids from school at 3:30 and drive them to their activities.” And that often includes violin, hockey and soccer practice for her 8-year-old son, Alastair, and piano lessons for her 6-year-old daughter, Sophie. “Fortunately, for the most part, I have control over my schedule.”
But even on her days off, Merrilee is still Dr. Brown, which means she’s usually on route to check in on her patients or she’s preparing for her next teaching gig – she teaches medical teachers and trainees at both the University of Toronto and Queen’s University and regularly speaks at medical retreats.
And because she’s constantly on call, her work day is never really done. “We like to call it ‘continuity of care’” she says, amused. “But that’s what makes the job such a joy,” she adds. “We (the ‘Docs’) don’t just give patients a prescription. We are there with them for the journey, helping them along the way.”
Merrilee credits the distinct nature of the community for making the experience at Port Perry so memorable for her and her other medical associates. “The (medical) residents usually like it so much here they stay,” she says with a surge of enthusiasm. “I know I did!”
She insists the desire to stay stems from many reasons, but most notably from the support the residents (medical students who are placed in a hospital/clinic to work) receive from patients. “Patients here are really doing a favour for us,” she insists. “People here are understanding and willing to see trainees and it has really allowed for a lot more doctors in the community.”
She also credits the team of Port Perry doctors and their unique camaraderie for making the everyday chaos bearable. “All of us doctors working together is the only thing that makes it sane,” she says, before adding that she and the other ‘docs’ consistently rely on one another to get the job done.
Merrilee knows exactly who to call if she needs to sign out of emerge due to her own “emergencies” at home. Reflecting on her time here in town, she adds, “Working in other areas showed me what was so special about Port Perry.”
After all, Port Perry wasn’t always in the cards for Merrilee and her husband, Steve. While Merrilee was initially introduced to the community through her brother, Doug Brown, owner and head pharmacist of the Port Perry Shoppers Drug Mart, she came in 1996 during her ‘rural residency’ and stayed to do ‘locum tenens’ work (which means “temporary physician”) for three months during the summer of 1997. “Doug told me how much I would love it here,” she says. “And I did. I felt like an old-fashioned doc!”
Perhaps this sentimental feeling had to do with Merrilee’s first experience with some of the locals. It turned out some of the “old-time” farmers around Port Perry knew Merrilee’s grandfather, who was also a farmer. “They would say to me, ‘Are you Jim Brown’s granddaughter?’ and when I said ‘yes’ they would say ‘I guess you can’t be all that bad!’”
Humour aside, Merrilee says she really did feel at home in Port Perry. “I remember thinking this is a wonderful town with great people.” But the old-town charm of Port Perry couldn’t compete with the power of love.
Shortly after working the summer in Port Perry, she would follow her heart to Alberta to be with her husband. There in the small town of Stony Plain, which according to Merrilee “had the same agricultural flavour” as Port Perry, she would continue performing ‘locum tenens’ work for another year.
But Port Perry continued to call her name, and with her husband being a “small-town boy” himself, they both felt Port Perry was the best place to “open up shop.”
She remembers one “quintessential Port Perry experience” which solidified, for her, the decision to come back to town.
“One night I admitted a grandfather to the hospital and then delivered his grandchild within the same 24-hour period,” she says with a heart-warming smile.
According to Merrilee the special connection she gets to establish with her patients and their families is just one of the many benefits of practicing in a small town. “You get to work with generations of families,” she adds.
Since settling in town and starting her practice, Merrilee has realized that all the ‘Docs’ have their designated place within the medical community. “Every one of the doctors adds a piece to the puzzle, we have a broad skill-set of doctors here,” she explains.
Merrilee has found her own niche in teaching. “I am heavily involved in medical education,” she says, referring to her position as co-chair of the Professional Development Committee for the University of Toronto Department of Family and Community Medicine and her role with the National Joint Committee on Rural Education.
“Teaching is such a joy for me because when I’m teaching I get to share what I love about it with others and it constantly reconnects me with what I love.”
And though she has received a lot of awards for her role in teaching, including the OCFP Community Teacher of the Year award in 2004, the Hollister King Rural Teaching Award in 2006, and the Rural Ontario Medical Programme’s Postgraduate Preceptor of the Year award in 2008, Merrilee humbly says, “The awards have a lot to do with residents. It’s not about me, but the experience they have while they are here.”
According to Dr. Brown, it’s the unique nature of the training here in Port Perry and the unique treatment the residents receive that makes the experience so noteworthy.
“We have the residents over for dinner; we include them in our lives. It makes a difference because in medical school you often don’t get treated as a person, you’re treated strictly as a colleague,” she explains. “But here, it’s different and I think that’s very memorable. These awards reflect what a great experience it is here.”
Merrilee also insists that the tremendous support of her family, including her husband, Steve, her children, Alastair and Sophie, and her brother, Doug, is what allows her to take on all the work she does every day.
“Without Steve I couldn’t do this. He’s truly a stand-up guy and a hands-on father,” she says, admiringly. “It won’t work unless your spouse is onboard. They can’t fall apart if you’re called away and they definitely have to value what you do because there is a lot of sacrifice in terms of personal time.”
She also admires how well her children have adapted and accepted her often hectic work schedule, “They appreciate what I do – they respect it,” she says. “If they tell me it’s important, I’ll be there, which is a lot of responsibility for kids to have,” she explains, referring to her children’s ability to decide when she needs to sign out of emergency. Merrilee also adds, “But I’m sensitive with the kids. I want them to know that they’re a priority.”
Of Course, Merrilee says she can’t forget her brother, Doug, who has always been “very generous to the medical community.” She credits her brother for not only being the one to encourage her to come to Port Perry, but for also being there whenever she needs a hand.
“I probably overuse him as a pharmacist,” she laughs. “But he’s the type of guy you can call when you’re in a tight spot.”
Like Merrilee, Doug holds a special place in his heart for teaching. As chair of the hospital foundation, he’s often working with trainees and teaching pharmaceutical interns. As Merrilee jokes, “He likes to wine and dine them by donating his boat and his home.”
Aside from the great support team Dr. Merrilee Brown has, she says the most important thing to her is quality family time and Port Perry has provided the ideal platform for that. She and her husband are currently working on restoring their 140-year-old home to make it “kid central.”
“I wanted to live in a place where kids could come by to skate and have hot chocolate and where cookies were always in the freezer,” she says, before joking that they nicknamed the house “Cochrane Community Sports Centre.”
Looking out her kitchen window, with her freshly-baked brownies in hand, she sighs, “We have a really fun, good life here.”
By Christina Coughlin
Focus on Scugog