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What’s up doc? Rookie MP brings his ER cred to House

Posted on February 11, 2016

Rookie Liberal MP and ER doctor Doug Eyolfson says he’s seen first-hand the impact government policies can have on communities.

Doug Eyolfson

The Hill Times

With more than two decades of experience working on the trauma front lines as an emergency-room physician in Winnipeg, rookie Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson says he’s seen first-hand the impact government policies can have on communities.

It’s what drove him to run for the Liberals in 2015. Now in Ottawa, following his surprise defeat of former Conservative minister Steven Fletcher, Dr. Eyolfson is bringing a unique perspective to the job.

“[As an ER doctor] we’re the front line and we see everything. And we’re really the interface between the community and the health-care system, so we see the effects not only of health problems, but the determinants of health. That was one of the things that gave me perspective that I thought was going to be helpful in this job. We see the effects of poverty, homelessness, crime, drug abuse, all these things,” said Dr. Eyolfson (Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingly, Man.) in an interview with The Hill Times last week in his sixth floor Confederation Building office.

For example, “someone comes in with a dangerously high blood sugar, they’re diabetic but they couldn’t afford their insulin, so they haven’t had insulin in a week. Or someone comes in with frost bite to both their feet because they’re homeless in January,” he said.

A homegrown Winnipegger, Dr. Eyolfson, 52, studied medicine at the University of Manitoba and did a five-year residency in emergency medicine at the school. He has spent more than 20 years working as an emergency room physician in his hometown, including at the Victoria Hospital, Seven Oaks Hospital, and most recently, the Health Sciences Centre, which serves as Manitoba’s designated trauma centre.

He was previously associate medical director of Manitoba’s Transportation Coordination Centre, is a former flight physician with the Manitoba Air Ambulance and is a former chairman of the Manitoba Emergency Services Medical Advisory Committee. His wife, Sowmya Dakshinamurti, is also a physician and practises as an anesthetist in Winnipeg.

Dr. Eyolfson was acclaimed the Liberal Party candidate for his riding in March 2015. On Oct. 19, he triumphed over Mr. Fletcher, a former minister of state, in what was considered an “upset,” with 52 per cent support and a roughly 6,000-vote margin.

Despite media predictions to the contrary, Dr. Eyolfson said he had a sense early in the campaign “there was a mood for change in the riding.” He said he wasn’t surprised by his victory but was “surprised by the margin.”

“We had been doing our own internal polling with our numbers at the door, and I knew it was close. It was much closer than the press inside our riding was giving us credit for. … When I saw the numbers [on election night], I was very surprised by that,” he said.

He said the riding has always been more “small-c conservative,” than hard right and he thinks a “strong national [Liberal] campaign” and “missteps by the two other major parties” swayed the vote his way last fall.

Dr. Eyolfson has been a member of the Liberal Party for the last decade and said his involvement moved beyond lawn signs about five years ago when he started attending meetings and “paying more and more attention to the process.”

After “becoming concerned with the direction the country was taking,” Dr. Eyolfson said he began musing out loud to friends about running for the party. Rather than being discouraged, as he anticipated, “people were suggesting to me that if I were to take this step and get involved directly in the process, I would do well.”

“I had often found politics to be, for lack of a better word, boring—but in a good way. I found that there wasn’t a huge difference between the two main parties [Conservatives and Liberals],” Dr. Eyolfson said, adding he’s “very centre of the road” politically.

“I found with the election of the previous government that things were going way to the right, particularly socially [and] basically ignoring science. There were some decisions they were making involving medicine and public safety that I knew from my experience were wrong and being based on ideology, and I found it frightening that we were actually going in that direction. So I felt more compelled to get involved,” he said, citing the previous Conservative government’s position on safe-injection sites as one example.

Dr. Eyolfson now brings his skills and knowledge from the emergency room to the House of Commons Chamber.

Whether it’s a Saturday night or a Tuesday morning, work as an emergency room physician is “unpredictable and completely uncontrollable,” and “often fast-paced,” he said. At the start of an eight-hour shift—which is “really about as long as you can work and be effective and efficient”—Dr. Eyolfson said you “take over” the patients from the doctor coming off and then start to examine new ones coming in.

“Sometimes the patients are straightforward, sometimes they’ve very complicated, sometimes they deteriorate very quickly, and then sometimes something very serious will come in the door. There might be a large car accident or someone coming in the midst of a heart attack who’s unstable. Occasionally, we have mass casualty incidents. I’ve been on duty at three in the morning when a shooting spree happened and we’re dealing with three simultaneous shooting victims,” he said.

But perhaps his most memorable experience as a doctor happened outside the ER in 2013. One night in February, following a “string of fairly intense shifts,” Dr. Eyolfson and a friend decided to grab a bus to go out for “a couple of drinks and a movie. … And then [all of a sudden] I’m on the floor of a bus doing CPR and sending my friend to a [nearby] hotel lobby to get a defibrillator.”

After boarding a bus, Dr. Eyolfson said he noticed an older man slumped over in his seat and a woman, who had been bent over him, heading to talk to the driver. “Something about her demeanor didn’t look right,” Dr. Eyolfson said. He went to the front of the bus to investigate, at first thinking maybe the man had passed out after drinking too much.

“When I saw his colouring, I realized that he did not have vital signs, and I knew what to do then. That part actually is one of the more straightforward things you do in emergency medicine: recognizing a code, starting CPR, getting the alarm system going, getting a defibrillator,” he said. “The trick into that one was recognizing there was something going on.”

The pair ended up saving the man’s life.

Now an MP in Ottawa, Dr. Eyolfson said he plans to keep up his medical licence by completing educational credits online and maintaining his “clinical competency” by doing shifts at the Health Sciences Centre, likely once a month during constituency weeks.

“I don’t want to forget how to do that. As well, part of what got me here is the perspective I got seeing the health of the community at that level. … Continuing to experience what’s going on there is going to help me be better at my job here,” he said.

Dr. Eyolfson is 85th on the order of precedence for MPs to introduce private members’ bills. He said he hasn’t decided what he wants his bill to be about, but he has a “few sort of nebulous ideas” and it would be “something that would have far-reaching public health implications.” He said he wants to do more research as to not “duplicate services.”

For example, he said he’s been concerned about “the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria right now,” connected to the “routine use of antibiotics in animal feed.” Another “big one” is helping people with affordable medications, he said, noting that Canada is the only G20 country without a national pharmacare program. “So I would like to look into the feasibility of that,” he said, adding that the fact ambulance services aren’t part of the federal-provincial health accord or covered by provincial health plans is also something he might want to do something about.

“Some patients will actually not call an ambulance because, depending on where they live, they know they’re not going to be able to afford the several-hundred-dollar ambulance bill,” he said.

Dr. Eyolfson is now a member of the House of Commons’ Health Committee and Veterans Affairs Committee—his first- and second-choice committee assignments, respectively.

Part of the Royal Canadian Air Force 17 Wing base is located in his riding and Dr. Eyolfson said he represents “a lot of retired veterans,” and he wanted to sit on the Veterans Affairs Committee because he thought he “would have a lot to contribute as a physician to the physical and mental health aspects of it.”

The Hill Times