New book highlights doctor's stories of living and working in the north

In her new book, Deep Water Dream, Dr. Gretchen Roedde shares her stories of living and practising medicine in northern Ontario's Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Amazing experience to create medical dictionary in Cree, says northern doctor

Dr. Gretchen Roedde is the author of two books. A murder mystery is in the works as her third. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Gretchen Roedde has done a lot of travelling. Over the past 40 years, the northern Ontario doctor has worked in 45 countries such as Papua New Guinea and Sudan.

Her new book, Deep Water Dream: A Medical Voyage of Discovery in Rural Northern Ontario
is all about living and working a little closer to home. 

Born in Thunder Bay, Roedde moved to Toronto Island when she was five. She made a northern connection early on, travelling with her father to small communities, including Indigenous communities, in a bookmobile. Her father was the deputy chief librarian for the province of Ontario. 

Roedde finished medical school in 1977, did her internship and then moved to Bear Island in northern Ontario. Her husband at the time was a land claims historian working on the Bear Island land claim.

"I hauled water, hewed wood, had a baby, nearly drowned several times and wondered what we were doing there," she said. 

She made house calls with Doreen Potts, wife of Gary Potts, former chief of Temagami First Nation.

"There was no nice fancy clinic at the time," said Roedde. "We just went round with backpacks and saw people at home."

At one point her baby daughter got frostbite when the fire in the wood stove went out and her arm slipped out of the sleeping bag.

"I thought to myself as her arm was all completely swollen and horrible looking that we really needed a place with running water and something better," said Roedde.

So they bought a five-bedroom house in Haileybury for $26,000. Roedde still lives in that house and practices medicine in Latchford, a community roughly 20 kilometres away.

Woven throughout Roedde's book are her experiences of practising medicine in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. 

Roedde thought she was pretty clever with her university degrees when she arrived at Bear Island. But she didn't know how to handle a snow machine. She didn't know how to drive a steel boat. She didn't know how to haul water. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that she didn't know much.

It was the women of Bear Island who helped her survive. "That was interesting to realize I had no status whatsoever," said Roedde. "In fact, I was an outsider and they were very gracious teaching me all these things."

Another amazing experience, Roedde says, was to work on translating medical terms into Cree — words like diabetes and tuberculosis.

"When people are coming in from Fort Albany to Moose Factory . . . somebody could explain what was happening in their own language," said Roedde. 

Deep Water Dream: A Medical Voyage of Discovery in Rural Northern Ontario is Roedde's second book. Copies of both of her books are available at Chapters in Sudbury and through Amazon.

She says a third one is in the works and it's going to be a murder mystery. 

With files from Markus Schwabe