He's 75, but this family doctor keeps postponing retirement

·4 min read
Dr. Ken Murray has been practising in Neils Harbour for 49 years. He originally signed up for a two-year stint. (Matthew Moore/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Ken Murray has been practising in Neils Harbour for 49 years. He originally signed up for a two-year stint. (Matthew Moore/CBC - image credit)

He's been talking about retirement for years, but now one of the oldest practising family doctors in Nova Scotia says he's more worried about staffing at his community's hospital than himself.

"Yes, retirement is very much on the mind, but I want to feel good when I leave," said Dr. Ken Murray, now one of 31 family doctors over the age of 75, according to Doctors Nova Scotia.

That number has increased by 10 in the last three years.

Murray initially signed up for a two-year stint in Neils Harbour, a village in northern Cape Breton.

But he became so charmed by the area, he's been there for 49 years.

Long hours

He isn't just working at the community clinic. Murray still does his share of on-call shifts at the emergency department at Buchanan Memorial Hospital, which last 48 hours a turn.

"Days can be busy — they can be quite busy — days can be quiet," he said, brushing aside the long hours.

"I sleep at home. You don't have to stay in the hospital."

Over the past two years, the community was successful in recruiting two young doctors who bought homes and have committed to staying for the long haul.

Murray said it would take one more doctor before he could be assured that Neils Harbour will have the help it needs.

"I could sit home and not feel good, knowing that there's not medical coverage, even for me."

There's also a baby boom at the medical clinic.

Maternity leave

Both of his physician colleagues will be on maternity leave this winter. A third physician, Dr. Genevieve Rochon-Terry, is also pregnant.

She's been working in Neils Harbour for a year, and is moving back to Ontario to raise her children close to her family.

"We would love for him to just be able to retire," said Rochon-Terry, who plans to return frequently in the future to help cover vacations.

"He just keeps graciously accepting the shifts we give him.

"Hopefully, at 75, I can look back on my practice and make as much of a difference as he has made to the community."

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Murray has committed to working steadily until the spring until the women return to work.

While Murray and the doctor shortage often get attention, he said he doesn't want to overshadow the efforts of his peers.

He said many others have changed their personal plans to make sure the area has medical coverage, including a nurse who has also postponed her retirement because of the nursing shortage.

"It's not as though I feel I'm in a trap, that would be awful," he laughed.

"I'm lucky I enjoy what I do most of the time but I do, even working through the spring, I'm going to have to limit it, it'll be less than full time."

There has been help in other forms.

Nurses hired

The clinic has recently hired a family practice nurse and nurse practitioner to help ease the workload.

Murray said the family practice nurse has been essential, helping him with routine phone calls and basic assessments of patients.

The nurse practitioner has been able to take on some of the patient load.

"Especially with the shortages that are pending, they're going to be a big help for us," he said, suggesting their presence is an ideal model for other rural communities struggling to provide primary care.

Rochon-Terry agrees. "Really having her around is like having another family physician here," she said of the nurse practitioner.

Murray and Rochon-Terry continue to make the pitch to other physicians that Neils Harbour is the ideal place to work.

Several are scheduled to fill in during the winter, and they're hoping the replacements will be just as smitten with the rural community as they are.

Rochon-Terry said it's a fascinating place to work for physicians just starting out. "The family doctors here really get to run the whole hospital."

Even when he does retire, Murray said he can't imagine giving up medicine for good.

He said he'll happily fill in for some shifts if some of his colleagues are in need of a few days off.

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