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Boon Docs, life as a rural doctor tickles the funny bone

Haida Gwaii’s Caroline Shooner draws observations from the medical field
Caroline Shooner (photo Health Arts Research Centre)

A health care practitioner in scrubs is standing in their home looking out the window phoning someone named Charlie to inform them they will be late for work. They reassure Charlie that they are feeling fine and that is not the reason for their tardiness that day. Outside the window we see a bear standing in the front lawn.

This is one of the many comics that Caroline Shooner, a family doctor at the Xaayda Gwaay Ngaaysdll Naay, Haida Gwaii Hospital and Health Centre, works on during her spare time since 2014.

Her collection of work is called the Boon Docs comics — a play on words from boondocks, meaning remote places off the beaten track.

“It’s a reflective practice and brings a lightheartedness to work that is usually quite serious. When I am drawing comics I can see a funny perspective on something that I haven’t thought of before. It brings more joy to my work,” said Shooner.

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Shooner was inspired to draw her humorous observations about working in the medical field after she went to a conference on the role of narrative in health care mixed with both academics and cartoonists. At the conference she heard many presentations on what doctors were calling graphic medicine and was particularly inspired by one doctor, Ian Williams, who publishes a series titled Bad Doctor.

“It was neat to hear them talk about the role of comics in medicine. It’s more varied than you think. It’s sort of a rabbit hole when you start diving in from funny to very serious novels that are graphic based,” she said.

“There’s a growing community of people interested in the interface between medicine and graphics and they focus on education and health care providers. There are many booklets in waiting rooms that help people understand their diabetes or why they have to wait when they are in a waiting room.”

For Shooner, her comics are a humorous observation about life as a doctor in a rural environment. Her story about the bear was inspired by the time she walked to work at night for a 2 a.m. call, and as she walked down a little trail connecting her street to the back of the hospital she heard a deep growl. Without knowing what the sound was she sped up and ran into the hospital. In the morning, when her shift was done she took the same path home only to realize there was garbage strewn about the floor - she had been feet away from a bear the night before.

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Shooner said wildlife is one of the things rural doctors have to take into account when designing buildings and hospitals. While working at a remote diagnostic treatment centre Shooner and the nurses realized that the building’s sliding doors were being activated outside the emergency room, on and off, until they realized a bear outside had been the cause.

Boon Docs is a one-woman comic but Shooner said she is always hoping to get more contributors and illustrators. Some of her favourite comics worked on have been collaborations where she gets inspired by the experiences of fellow doctors.

“You don’t really get a language until you can understand its jokes. I think it creates a new connection, a deeper one, when I can illustrate a comic idea someone has relayed to me,” she said.

Shooner said one of her funniest memories was when she created a comic imagining what a physician’s experience was like when they were the ones experiencing a medical issue in a community with only one hospital.

In her comic, in an awkward situation, the doctor from the last shift was suddenly a patient ordering tests for themselves.

“A week later I lived that comic,” she said. “It was hilarious, in a twilight zone kind of way, because I had just drawn this comic almost imagining the future.”

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The small town ties have also been a difference for Shooner from urban medicine. Before Haida Gwaii she was working on one of the Gulf Islands as the only practitioner.

“It was challenging because everyone was a patient and my social interactions had to be cautious and superficial to protect people’s privacy,” she said.

Shooner also explained that people would come up to her in the grocery store line up with their medical updates.

“What I also realized quickly was when I was not at work, I could not shed the doctors hat. But then I realized I did the same thing when I ran into my local plumber so we [doctors] are not special. That’s small town life.”

Shooner, 47, was brought to Haida Gwaii in 2000 as a temporary replacement but decided to stay permanently in 2007.

She was born and raised in Montreal where she graduated from medical school at McGill University. Schooner never had an interest for practicing medicine in an urban setting. In 1998, she decided to move to a small town in Labrador, Newfoundland, for her residency in family medicine.

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From there Shooner took contracts in very small communities until she finally settled on Haida Gwaii because of its beauty and the medical community.

“I found, and still find, the team here to be very cohesive and supportive people. They work hard and have high expectations of themselves. They are a positive and pull each other up. I’m happy in my work and happy in my community.”

Shooner said travelling long-distances to receive care is a challenge patients face in rural communities, and retaining physicians can be difficult for a variety of reasons, from finding their partner employment to being on call almost everyday.

Small town medicine will continue to have its challenges and its quirks. In the meantime ,Shooner will continue sketching out her observations to bring humour to her colleagues — and her mom, her biggest fan.

Jenna Cocullo | Journalist
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(Caroline Shooner, Boon Docs)
(Caroline Shooner, Boon Docs)
(Caroline Shooner, Boon Docs)
(Caroline Shooner, Boon Docs)