A Former Mayor-Turned-Doctor on Second Careers and Being a Lifelong Learner

Karina Pillay on going to medical school mid-life and becoming a family doctor after leading her small town through a wildfire

My parents escaped South Africa during apartheid and came to Canada, so I grew up in Slave Lake, a rural community of about 6,000 people in northern Alberta. In a place that size, you learn to get along with everybody. After I finished high school, I went to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, then applied for medical school and was rejected many times. So I returned to Slave Lake. I worked in forestry and adult education. After university, I got married to my junior high school sweetheart, Bill. His family had a business in oil and gas. We took over the business and grew it to 15 employees, but it’s a tough industry to work in. There are many things to worry about—the cold, worker safety, addictions. We enjoyed the challenge but, at a certain point, we recognized it was no longer fulfilling for us. We decided to shut it down.

I’d been working for the town part-time as a coordinator. It was quite toxic—lots of bullying and unethical behaviour. It hit me that this was not the type of environment I wanted to work in. I decided to run for mayor. I wanted to reset the culture and build strength in our community. I was 33. Some people didn’t take me seriously because of my age. Other candidates said it was “nice to see young people getting involved.” But I put together a large team and we door-knocked relentlessly. I was strategic about getting the vote out. In the end, I had more votes than all the men combined.

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I was elected mayor first in 2004 and won two more elections after that. In 2011, midway through my third term, a major wildfire broke out on the outskirts of town. I met with my team in the town office, a building we’d built one year prior. Someone ran in and shouted, “The roof’s on fire!” Fierce 100 kilometre-per-hour winds were carrying balls of fire through the sky and into the town. Something inside me kicked in at that moment. I didn’t think about my own life or my safety, I only thought about what we needed to do for our community. As we were running out of the building, fire was falling from the sky. But my focus never changed. We had a sense of duty to our community. We worked through the night for days on end with very little sleep. You learn very quickly to check your ego at the door and look for the common goal.

At the time, the Slave Lake fire was the second largest weather disaster in Canadian history: One third of the town’s buildings burnt to the ground. The fire changed the lives of everyone who lived through it. It was hard and horrible, but we benefited from a remarkable wave of support from Alberta, across Canada and the globe. From the start, we were laser-focused on rebuilding. By March 2013, we’d rebuilt the town hall. We created a manuscript for other municipalities about our lessons learned from the disaster, which has, sadly, been used for guidance many times since then. In Western Canada, we experienced multiple significant disasters that eclipsed the Slave Lake fire—the 2013 flooding in southern Alberta, the 2016 fires in Fort McMurray and a series of wildfires and heatwaves across British Columbia.

Through all of this, medicine was still on my mind. During my last summer as mayor, as the new town hall was going up, I started studying for the medical school entrance exam again. It was an enormous challenge. I was using textbooks from 20 years ago. But the skills that I had developed as mayor—leadership, community building, resource management—helped me to get into medical school. I started at the University of Calgary in the summer of 2013.

My rule is that I don’t doubt myself until I give something a go. You don’t know until you try it. Life is about learning and trying, again and again. Be a lifetime learner.

Medical school was tough. I was 42 when I started. When I walked into my first class, I carried a pen and paper, and everyone else brought their laptop. (I bought a Mac later that week.) You don’t get breaks for being a mature student. You work the same hours as everyone.

I was drawn to family medicine, so I joined a practice in Calgary. I like challenges, and it’s a challenge. Family doctors help manage someone’s health, but we also help with social issues because we’re looking at the preventative side.

I’d just completed my second year of practice when the pandemic struck. It has not been an easy ride. It’s a joy and a privilege to be part of someone’s journey, but I would say that this is probably the toughest career I’ve been in. It can consume you, with its need for constant empathy and compassion. I worry so much about my patients—just like I worried about my community as mayor. But as a physician, you have to learn how to set boundaries from work. You could be there more than 10 hours a day, every day.

I’m planning to keep doing this for a while. That said, I do have my next career challenge in mind. I’ve applied to become a member of the Canadian Senate. Since 2016, Canadians can apply to the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments. This body is designed to ensure that senators are non-partisan and reflect Canada’s diversity. I don’t know if I’ll be considered. But for me, one of the roles of a senator is to represent vulnerable populations. As a woman of colour, I would not take that responsibility lightly. It would even mean leaving medicine, because I couldn’t do both jobs. As a family doctor, you need to be there for your patients.

I feel like I’ve lived multiple lives with all my experiences. I got here by being a lifelong learner and keeping my mind open to experiencing new things.

When I graduated from medical school, I was asked to speak at our graduation. My message remains true: You may have graduated, but you are a learner still. Be kind to others who are learning—you will be learning from them, too.

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada