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Mixing medicine and motherhood

[Elspeth and Wyatt McTavish]
Elspeth McTavish holds her son Wyatt shortly after her convocation ceremony at Grant Hall. Wyatt was born just three days earlier on May 18. (University Communications)

Elspeth McTavish, who goes by the nickname ‘Pepi’, was working on the frontlines of health care as a registered nurse when she realized that she wasn’t entirely satisfied with her position.

“I found myself banging my head a lot,” she recalls with a laugh. “I realized I wanted to make  larger upstream changes within the health care system.”

Before that was possible, however, Ms. McTavish, who also holds masters degrees in both public health and health management, knew she would have to make some changes in her own life: including returning to university for her medical degree.

On May 21, Ms. McTavish realized that dream, convocating with her medical degree but also with a slew of awards including the Neil Currie Polson Memorial Prize (awarded to a student in the final year who is judged by his/her teachers to be best adapted to apply his/her training in practice), the A.J. Douglas Prize in Community Health and Epidemiology (awarded to a fourth-year medical student demonstrating the greatest human understanding for the welfare of patients) and the Mathews Medal in Family Medicine.

But Ms. McTavish admits she wasn’t convinced she would make it to her convocation ceremony. That’s because three days earlier, on May 18, she gave birth to a baby boy, Wyatt.

“I knew I didn’t want to miss this convocation,” says Ms. McTavish, who is now based in Newmarket where she is pursuing a residency position in Family Medicine at the University of Toronto’s Newmarket site. “My husband asked me how I felt on the morning of convocation, and I felt OK. He drove and the baby slept!” 

Wyatt’s birth came only 11 months after the birth of her first child, April. Ms. McTavish took seven weeks off to tend to her firstborn before her husband, a paramedic, took over as the primary caregiver.

“I didn’t want to take a whole year off,” she explains, “because you get too far behind.”

Instead, Ms. McTavish describes pumping milk for her baby while she was on call doing a placement in internal medicine.

While she admits her experience has been slightly unconventional, Ms. McTavish says that overall, things have worked out well. While the university’s medical school did not currently have a policy to support students who choose to have children while pursuing their medical education, she says that is changing.

“The School of Medicine has been  tremendously supportive and are now creating a policy to help new parents,” she says.

While her diverse medical experience includes working as a volunteer camp nurse to support patients with HIV, serving as a local officer with the Canadian Federation of Medical Students to promote reproductive and sexual health in medical education, and taking training in public health at Harvard University as part of her medical degree, Ms. McTavish still anticipates that parenting will be the hardest thing she will ever do. 

For now, she is enjoying her new baby and basking in the glow of having realized a dream in a medical program she describes as “fantastic.”

“I never would have thought that I would have 99 peers and co-workers who could be as wonderful as they have been,” she says. “I know they are all going to be leaders in the world of medicine.”

This article was first published in the June 9 edition of the Gazette, which is available at many locations around campus.