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Front Lines: Rural medicine through the eyes of a Prince George physician

Dr. Tammy Attia plays the drums in her yurt

Photo: Tim Swanky

“Medicine is so different here than in the city. We realize how much people need their community in terms of its therapeutic value”
- Dr. Tammy Attia

Author: Sarah de Leeuw

About 20 kilometres northwest of Prince George, the Nechako River bends and branches. The main stem of the river seems to tear apart, making room for cottonwood-covered islands separated by side channels and back eddies that end in lowbush blueberry and red-osier dogwood. It’s as if the river, in that sinewy curve around the small community of Miworth, follows the beat of a different drummer.

Or maybe, just maybe, where the waters braid through the islands, rhythmically slapping the changing shorelines, they are responding to Dr. Tammy Attia’s drum kit.

On the precipice of a steep cliff overhanging that section of the Nechako, inside the stretched canvas walls of her yurt, Dr. Attia plays the drums with a surprising vehemence – particularly when you consider that the soft-spoken family doctor spends a considerable amount of time mulling over topics like the history of Christianity and the role of the Coptic Church in contemporary Egypt. This is in addition to her daily grapplings with ways to best care for her patients that include delving into the historical roots of medicine, the importance of relationships to healing, and finding the balance between mind, body, and soul.

Balance is a theme that has long flowed through Tammy’s life. Her father and mother, who met in Egypt and immigrated to Montreal shortly before Tammy was born, represented a kind of contrapuntal back and forth in Tammy’s upbringing: her mother has a master’s degree in French literature while her father is a surgeon, a visionary physician who transformed the Ear, Nose, and Throat Department in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Her parents are her heroes, a mother who encouraged creative introspection and a father who prized ethics and compassion when caring for patients.

“I went into medicine,” Tammy says quietly, “thinking I was going to minister to patients. But then I learned something different. You gain insight from people’s fight for survival, their fight for life, which is such a raw fight and is a huge testament to the human spirit. It’s one of the most inspiring and grounding experiences you can have. And I see it 20 times a day. It’s virtually impossible to be self-absorbed when you’re in a room with suffering and survival. So my patients teach me more than they will ever know. More than I can ever give them.”

Tammy is the first to admit that balance is a difficult thing to achieve in the practice of medicine. Although achieving some sort of perfect harmony would “be the ultimate,” she is comfortable pointing out that it is “easy to get sucked into a certain mode of thinking. Like privileging the body and just addressing that. I think initially I was very distraught about this, that I couldn’t have my perfect balance at all times – that it was an impossible kind of dream. But then I learned to balance things as best as I could. Am I there yet? No. But I aim to achieve it.”

Balance in her relationship with the land is another goal. The house she and her husband are building, steps away from her yurt and also balanced on the cliffs overlooking the Nechako, is fueled in part by geothermal energy and was built with as little disruption to local flora as possible. continued

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