Listeners offer support to Sask. gynecologic oncologists who feel burned out

Listeners of The Morning Edition offered words of support and shared their experiences with two specialists who recently told CBC News they left their positions due to excessive workload without much relief

A gynecologic oncologist treats ovarian, cervical, uterine and vulvar cancers

Dr. Anita Agrawal accepted a job in Ontario and Dr. Christopher Giede has been on medical leave since September. (CBC)

Residents of Saskatchewan are calling for change and offering praise to two Saskatoon-based gynecologic oncologists, who recently told CBC News they were feeling burned out from their workload.

Dr. Anita Agrawal accepted a job in Ontario and Dr. Christopher Giede has been on indefinite medical leave since September.

Both say it's because of the demanding workload and lack of a third gynecologic oncologist, as well as additional clinical support, in the city.

Wendy Gulbis, from Lloydminster Sask., said every time she reads the story, she feels more and more anger.

"These two amazing people (Dr. Agrawal being my main oncologist) saved my life," Gulbis wrote in an email to CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.

"Against all odds, I sit here today almost 2.5 years cancer free because they didn't once doubt their abilities and gave me no indication that anything but cure was the goal."

Sadly, this is an issue with many of the specialists in this province: heavy workload with little relief- Dr. Edmond Lemire, retired medical geneticist 

She said she felt as though she was always treated with the best care, and she never felt like she inconvenienced anyone with frantic phone calls or last minute appointments.

Gulbis said as tired or exhausted as they may have felt, it was never reflected in the care she received.

"I am so angry at the Ministry of Health for allowing this to happen," she wrote, adding even though she has been cancer free for two-and-a-half years, she's still scared. "It is terrifying to know if my cancer returns it will take my life."

She said she felt comfortable knowing she had access to the best care available and the best chances for survival because Agrawal and Giede were looking out for her.

Gulbis said people who haven't experienced cancer couldn't understand how terrifying it is to know that their only lifelines are gone.

She said she has upcoming appointments and she has no idea who she will be seeing.

"Will they have studied my history? Will they understand my fear? Will they fight for my life as hard as me or as these two doctors have? Will they display the confidence these two amazing people have? If they do not have this confidence, how can I?"

Listener Sharon Birch said, based on the experiences she has had with both doctors, that she also supports the hiring of more gynecologic oncologists in Saskatoon, as it would ease the workload on the specialists.

"These two talented physicians shepherded me through my cancer journey," Birch wrote. 

"A friend has recently been diagnosed and I am saddened to know that neither Dr. Giede nor Dr. Agrawal will be there to assist in her care."

Linda Coomber-Bendtsen, who underwent treatment for both ovarian and uterine cancer in 2011, said the cancer specialists saved her life. 

"If we want our specialists to protect us from deadly cancers and other health issues, should we not protect them from overwork and burn out?" she wrote in an email.

"Dr. Giede, we support you as you supported us."

Others in similar positions: retired specialist

Former Saskatoon-based medical geneticist Dr. Edmond Lemire also emailed The Morning Edition about Giede and Agrawal's story.

"Kudos for Drs. Giede and Agrawal bringing this issue to the public's attention," he wrote. "Sadly, this is an issue with many of the specialists in this province: heavy workload with little relief."

He said he saw parallels with his 19-year career, where he was the only medical geneticist in the province.

As a result, Lemire said he felt the need to check his emails daily, even on his holidays, in order to properly guide genetic counselors who dealt with clinical matters in his absence.

Lemire said someone expressed interest in working in Saskatoon while he was working, yet there was no position available, something he called a "missed opportunity with respect to recruitment."

He retired in 2015, with no replacement in place, despite informing the then Saskatoon Health Region four years before he left.

"I returned to work on a part-time basis for about a year-and-a-half until a medical geneticist was hired and settled in the demanding role of being the province's sole medical geneticist," he wrote.

"I know for a fact many of my specialist colleagues are in similar situations. Burnout is a real concern for specialists in this province."

with files from Bonnie Allen


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