‘All in:’ meet Dr. Akila Whiley, family doc who charted her own map and made Red Lake homePosted on August 23, 2022
“It was minus-40 and it was January,” recalls Dr. Akila Whiley, recounting her arrival in the small community of Red Lake, some 500 km northwest of Thunder Bay. “It was a dark night,” she remembers. “I had no clue where I was. The person who cleans the runway drove me home… I didn’t have my luggage.”
“It was just crazy!”
Dr. Whiley was born and raised in Halifax. Following an undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montreal, she went back to Halifax to attend Dalhousie’s medical school. She then earned a spot at the University of Toronto and was working through a family medicine residency. She says that because her experience to that point had been in large urban settings, the emphasis seemed to be on specializations—anything but rural generalism and family medicine.
“That really wasn’t what I wanted,” she says about weighing her options for the final year of her residency. “And so I truthfully mapped out all of the places I could go… and I picked the furthest place on the map.”
That place was Red Lake, and in the early days of her residency there, Dr. Whiley says, “it took a lot of bravery. It was really scary.” But she must have put on a courageous face, because she made a very good impression. On her final day, a local doctor asked her to come back to Red Lake to practise.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” she recalls. “I got on the flight and I left. And then I had just a really sinking feeling that I’d never come back. And so that was my sign.”
“I wrote him back a week later and said, you know… I’m gonna be all in.”
Four months later, Dr. Whiley was back on a plane to Red Lake.
“You just do it,” she says of establishing her practice. “I think you know in the moment. I knew that going to Red Lake was what I wanted, but in hindsight, you have to be brave.”
Dr. Whiley recalls in her first year in the community, despite perhaps experiencing a little bit of “imposter syndrome,” she knew she had the training to be a good rural generalist and family physician. She also knew she wasn’t alone. “In communities like ours, I always felt like there was somebody there that would help me if I needed it.”
And need help she would. In her first three weeks of practise, Red Lake’s hospital had to be completely evacuated due to encroaching forest fires.
There’s a number of things you can prepare for,” Dr. Whiley says of that surreal experience. “And then there are those that require the courage to step up to, with the leadership skills, commitment to community, and trusted resources you have as a clinician.”
Every single patient was evacuated safely, and Dr. Whiley now reflects on how that frightening event galvanized the community even more.
“It was just this remarkable group effort. There’s so many people I see and I’m reminded of our sense of connection because we went through that experience together.”
She says people in Red Lake have been so supportive and appreciative of her efforts in the community.
“I just feel so welcomed, and I feel really validated in the work that I do,” she says.
“You know, there’s just something so special about serving in a community that is small and unique and tight. It’s difficult to describe the feeling. You really do care for people at all stages in their life. I have found so much fulfillment.”
This NOSM University Campfire Chat was made possible by the generous sponsorship of Weaver Simmons.