Patients and patience

Dr. Willy Arsenault retires after serving the people of Labrador west for forty years.


Published on April 10, 2017

Dr. Willy’s last look at patients files.

©Photo by Mike Power

There are probably very few people in Labrador City and Wabush who haven't seen Dr. Willy Arsenault at some time or another in the past forty years.

The physician hung up his stethoscope recently, and trying to write about all those years would be better suited for a book.

Dr. Willy is what people in the area affectionately call him. He’s a family physician, who has also punched time those years in the Emergency Department, and making hospital rounds as well. 

Many people may not know it, but Dr. Willy actually started working in Labrador City in 1966 at the Iron Ore Company of Canada as a laborer and a clerk typist. After that, it was back to St. Johns to work for what was then called Canada Manpower.

He returned to Labrador west from 1968 to 1970, as the manager of the Manpower centre in the area. 

Then it was back to St. Johns for university. That led to med school and he was back in Labrador West as an intern in 1975. It was in 1977 that he took on full time practice, practicing in a number of clinics and as a doctor for IOC.

Finally opening his family practice, and becoming part of the hospital team.

“I knew that I would stay in Labrador, even as an intern, I was so convinced of that I started a log cabin “he told TC. 

When asked by TC how many patients he estimates that he has seen in his career, Arsenault draws a blank. It is as though the numbers are too much to crunch.

“Well I’d average (conservatively) 30 patients a day for five days a week, often more...over forty years, adding in days off and holidays.”

Nevertheless, he was still hard pressed to come up with a number. With that math however based on working 220 days a year the TC calculator gives it a conservative number of 240,000.

Despite the staggering estimate, it wasn't easy to get Dr. Willy to talk about himself. Rather he preferred to speak about the changes he has seen in Labrador Wests hospital and medical services during his tenure. 
“Nurses Rhyna Burgess and Mary Murphy were my mentors during the baby boom from 1978 till 1982,” he told TC. 
Being a doctor then meant you had to help deliver babies, as part of your duties.

“In Labrador west, being a family doctor also means you put time in the Emergency Department, and you do hospital rounds as well. In larger centers, you usually do one of the three jobs. Here you do them all," Arsenault says. 

It's something that comes with the territory, and sometimes that makes recruiting a difficult thing. 

Reluctant to elaborate much when asked about the highlights or difficult parts of the job, Dr. Willy said, "It was always a joy to be part of a team that delivered a healthy baby."

What Dr. Willy was more interested in sharing was the things he saw that meant big improvements in health care for the area. 

The top of his list include:

An onsite obstetrician - fewer patients having to leave the area 

CT scanning- huge improvements in diagnostics 

Air ambulance services relocated to Happy Valley Goose Bay meaning shorter wait times for emergencies in the area in most cases.

A new state of the art hospital with many improved services and better equipment.

He's also quick to point out that the support of the community has been uplifting. So many fundraising efforts, the Legion telethons that have meant new, state of the art equipment and the support people have given to the medical community when it's needed.
In summing up, Arsenault says it's been quite the experience.

People visit the doctor and they think that's it. Most people don't realize how much follow up work there is ...ordering tests, checking the results, making sure there are follow ups, booking specialists , tons of charts and paper work and more and more . 

To help make that as smooth as possible, Dr. Willy’s clinic has a team that's worked together for decades. Along with him are his wife Jenny, who is a nurse, and Ruth Abbot, a nursing assistant and medical secretary. Together they have touched the lives of so many in Labrador West.

For his thoughts on retiring. 

"I announced this in 2014, and that gave me time to stop taking new patients, and to find ways to find new doctors for my patients of many years, and a way to transfer files for those people," he said.

"These patients have become friends for all of us at the clinic. It's hard to let go, there's some separation anxiety for sure."

Dr. Willy says he is looking forward to retirement.

"I love Labrador, I love the environment, I love the cabin, and I’m going to enjoy it all. I've never had any more than a three week vacation for the last forty years."

Andrew Robertson, who was MC at an event to honour Arsenault’s retirement, said following research as best as he can determine Dr. Willy Arsenault is the second longest continual serving doctor in Labrador after Dr. Wilfred Grenfell.

At the same ceremony, honours were bestowed on Tammy Turpin, who has been a nurse in Labrador West for 37 years. We will hear her story in an upcoming edition of The Aurora.

Recently several events were held to honour Dr. Willy, the mountain of thank you cards and gifts delivered to his office in his final weeks, for him and his staff showed the impact they have had on people's lives.

You just need to see him and any member of his team at the grocery store or the local mall. Stopping to say hello, and how are you doing with patients who have become like family.

This was the norm, and it's likely to continue for quite some time.