Dr. Dieter Poenn retires from Northeastern Manitoulin Family Health Team

Dr. Dieter Poenn with a star blanket gifted to him on his last day at the Wiikwemkoong Health Centre.

LITTLE CURRENT—A suitably relaxed Dr. Dieter Poenn sits back in his chair in The Expositor office fresh from making his rounds at Manitoulin Centennial Manor to talk about… his retirement? Dr. Poenn laughs, apparently that whole retirement thing can be a work in progress when you have spent a career practicing rural medicine.

“I still do the Manor and I filled in for a couple of shifts in the ER (emergency room at Manitoulin Health Centre) because they were short-handed,” he said. “It’s been a bit of a challenge getting locums in.” The ripple effects of the pandemic might have something to do with that. “I’m not sure exactly why,” he cautions.

Dr. Poenn arrived on the Island to practice medicine way back in 1988, with the original intent of taking over the late Dr. Jack Bailey’s practice.

“I graduated in 1986, then did two years residency at Queen’s,” he said. He and his wife Siska (the couple met and married in 1982, while Dr. Poenn was still in medical school) visited the Island (and some North Shore communities) while he was still in residency. “Originally, we were going to give it a couple of years to see how it goes.” Like many who dip their toes into Island life, the couple soon found themselves well and thoroughly hooked.

The Island had a lot going for it, especially given its close proximity to Killarney. Dr. Poenn is a kayaker, well, at that time of his life “just” a kayaker would be a major understatement. He spent 12 years on the national team, travelling across Canada, the US and even onto Europe. Not only was kayaking a big part of Dr. Poenn’s life, starting out on trips with his father when he was quite young, but the sport would go on to serve a very valuable role in his medical career, he explains.

As an ‘A-card’ level national athlete, Dr. Poenn received both a living allowance and his tuition paid. A nice boost to his education costs, as any student would be willing to confirm. Although his competitive days are well in the rear-view mirror, kayaking and canoeing (and Killarney) remain close to his heart.

Dr. Poenn almost followed a much different career path after high school. His undergraduate degree included psychology and he was employed as a case worker and was seriously considering following a path into psychiatry when he happened to mention that plan to his advisor, who pointed out the pitfalls of finding employment in that field. “It was tenuous at best,” recalled Dr. Poenn. “He said ‘before you go down that path, why don’t you check out medicine.’”

It was fortuitous advice, because Dr. Poenn discovered he didn’t care for psychology at all. What did pique his interest was rural medicine. At that time there wasn’t actually a dedicated rural medicine stream in most medical schools. Queen’s was the only option. He got a taste of that style of practice while in Sharbot Lake, a small community north of Kingston.

A perusal of the underserviced area program pointed Dr. Poenn north, and then there was that whole white water kayaking hook. Dr. Roy Jeffery and Dr. Jack Bailey interviewed him and something about that duo struck him right away. “Nobody was wearing a white coat and tie,” Dr. Poenn laughed. “I had just come from Queen’s, where everybody was wearing a white coat and tie.” That lack of any pretension on the part of his interviewers resonated.

And then there was Killarney and white water, where Dr. Poenn and his wife Siska had celebrated their honeymoon. “It is one of the best places in the province to canoe,” he said.

That’s not to say the integration of the boy from Belleville into the Island was all smooth sailing. While he was hired to replace Dr. Bailey upon his retirement, Dr. Bailey didn’t actually retire. “Those were the days of fee for hire,” said Dr. Poenn. “I was supposed to take over Dr. Bailey’s practice, but Dr. Bailey was still practicing. I found myself asking ‘what am I doing here?’” But Dr. Bailey did eventually scale back and then retire. “It just took a couple of years,” said Dr. Poenn.

Finding a place to live was just as much a challenge on Manitoulin then as it is today. “There were no places to rent, no places to buy, we finally wound up building a house,” he said. The Poenns went on to raise four children on Manitoulin—one of whom, Jonathan, is now in his second year at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and planning to settle on the Island and follow in his father’s footsteps.

Practicing rural medicine as a general practitioner in the days of Dr. Jack Bailey and when Dr. Poenn arrived here presented constant and near daily challenges unlike those of most urban doctors. The emergency room work, the wide range of ailments and injuries that come with a rural practice provided a much different world than the typical nine-to-five experience in a city practice. Even with pioneers like Dr. Bailey having broken trail ahead, that trail still presented a daunting journey to a young doctor just starting out in the field.

“I knew I had enormous shoes to fill,” said Dr. Poenn of Dr. Bailey. “He had immense respect in the First Nations communities.” But looking back on his experiences, and the manner in which he found himself being embraced by those very same communities, Dr. Poenn said he felt he had to a large extent “fulfilled that mandate.”

Dr. Bailey was recognized as Family Physician of the Year during his tenure as an Island physician, an accolade that Dr. Poenn himself received in 2018.

“It’s kind of validating to find myself, all these years later, receiving the same award,” said Dr. Poenn. As he delivered his acceptance speech (a task he admits to finding more daunting than most stints in emerg), Dr. Poenn found strength in the eagle feather he held, a gift from an elder in Wiikwemkoong. “I felt that, looking back, I did a good job too,” he said.

The gig of a rural family physician has changed dramatically for the better in recent years, notes Dr. Poenn. The new approach of the family health teams, with nurse practitioners, doctor’s assistants and the connectivity and depth of electronic medical records have smoothed that road considerably.

Those two years to get the feel of the land turned into five, then 10 then 20 and now, 34 years on, Dr. Poenn and his wife plan to continue living on the Island. The Poenns went on to raise a family and make a life for themselves with no regrets.

“We thought about leaving a few times over the years,” he admits. The opportunities for career advancement were plentiful in urban centres like Ottawa, but when those opportunities and career options were placed up against what they had on Manitoulin, all fell far short of the mark.

“‘Why do it?’ we asked ourselves,” said Dr. Poenn.

One of the things he is most proud of during his career was his ability to maintain a work-life balance with his family, something that he feels would have been more challenging in an urban practice.

The support of the community, the special feeling that enveloped him in Wiikwemkoong and other Island communities, “it was affirming.”

Dr. Poenn is involved with NOSM and he said he hopes that other Island youth will take up the path to the health services because the need for medical professionals who enjoy living in small rural communities has, if anything, grown since he entered the profession.

“Right now, we have applicants from Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury, but very few from small rural communities like those here on Manitoulin Island,” he said.

The path to a medical profession isn’t as daunting as one might think, Dr. Poenn noted, pointing to his own undergraduate degree majors. “Go ahead and get an arts degree,” he advised, “take a few science courses and apply.”

With a bit of hard work and dedication to the goal, a rewarding career could very well be yours.

In the meantime, Dr. Poenn said he is looking forward to enjoying his retirement, whenever that actually fully kicks in. With a reputation as one of the Island’s best diagnosticians, Dr. Poenn will definitely be missed, but after a long and dedicated career of service to Manitoulin and its residents, it will be a retirement well-deserved.