“The humanities are of critical importance in medicine today—being in touch with our humanity is essential.”
It only takes a few steps into the delightful journey of learning about Dr. Derek Puddester to discover two important things about him: that his personal life is as rich and fulfilled as his professional life; and that he’s the kind of person who positively impacts everyone he meets.
This is a man who’s achieved great success as a clinical psychiatrist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), and as a professor and Director of the Faculty Wellness Program at the University of Ottawa. Yet his colleagues are just as likely to tell you about his unquenchable joie de vivre, love of travel and penchant for Evil Dead The Musical as they are to rave about his success in launching ePhysicianHealth.com and eWorkplaceHealth.com, receiving the 2010 C.A. Roberts Award for Clinical Leadership (among many others), and changing and saving lives around the world.
Ottawa, Ontario’s Dr. Kimberly Sogge, who recommended Derek as a Kickass Canadian, had this to say: “Improving the health and wellness of healthcare providers is a passion of mine, and Dr. Derek Puddester is the best I know of (in this field) in Canada. There may be nothing more noble than creating an infectious wellness in the heart of an unwell system of care.”
Dr. Simon Davidson, uOttawa’s former Chair of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the man responsible for recruiting Derek from Memorial University in Newfoundland, says: “Of all the child and adolescent psychiatrists to have applied for promotion within the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Puddester has enjoyed by far the fastest trajectory of progress through the ranks, and deservedly so. The combination of his broad-based clinical and educational skills, together with his thoughtful and visionary leadership style, make for an individual who has already accomplished a great deal and effectively is only beginning his career.”
My friend—and one of the team members of both ePhysicianHealth.com and eWorkplaceHealth.com—Dr. Emma Stodel also had wonderful words about her colleague and mentor: “Derek is a visionary, with the chops to make things happen and to change lives. Working with him has changed my life and who I strive to be. Derek models dedication to his work as a clinician and an educator… yet he balances this with a similar dedication to his family, theatre, travel and so much more. Indeed, balance is what I respect most about Derek. He has the biggest heart of anyone I know, yet this doesn’t make him a pushover. He is brilliant in his field of expertise, but is humble and quick to praise others. He deals with tragedy on a daily basis, but is quick to smile.”
Everything in my so-far brief excursion into Derek’s world reinforces what these three think of him. In the midst of his extremely busy schedule, he’s still able to quickly put together comprehensive notes in response to my questions—and they come complete with smiley faces and good humour. It’s a pleasure to share his story here, because his enthusiasm and joy are infectious and should be channeled to as many people as possible.
For those of you who aren’t among the tens of thousands of people worldwide who have benefited from his work, I’ll start by introducing some of his astonishing professional accomplishments.
Shining light on the medical community
Among Derek’s many titles, he’s Medical Director of the Behavioural Neurosciences and Consultation-Liaison team at CHEO and Director of Professional Development and Continuing Education for the CHEO Department of Psychiatry. His work at the hospital is focused primarily on children and youth affected by severe physical and mental disorders.
At uOttawa, where he’s also Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, he has achieved incredible feats as Director of the institution’s Faculty Wellness Program. Working with a multidisciplinary team of members from the medical and academic communities, he develops and delivers preventative, educational, interventional and rehabilitation services to medical students, residents and staff physicians.
Perhaps the most pivotal contribution he has made through the Faculty Wellness Program is his work with e-learning. Since launching ePhysicianHealth.com and eWorkplaceHealth.com in 2008, he and his team of uOttawa Faculty of Education superstars have improved—and in some cases saved—the lives of countless people around the world.
ePhysicianHealth.com, for which Derek won the 2010 International Award of Excellence in Business/Professional Education from the International E-Learning Association (IELA), is having a particularly resounding impact. “We have thousands of users every month, who come from almost every country on Earth,” he says. “I’m humbled and pleased with that result.”
The bilingual website—available in French at e-santedesmedecins.com—provides a series of modules on physical and mental health issues, each of which offers practical advice from Canada’s leading physician health experts on how doctors and medical students can maintain and enhance their own health and wellbeing. Derek realized that the time had come for such a free online resource when the demand for his workshops on physician health began to reach exponential heights. As it turns out, it couldn’t have come a minute too soon.
“I often get emails from users of the site,” he says. “Some of them are straightforward notes of appreciation, some of them are inspirational stories of how the site has saved their life. I can think of many stories of suicidal physicians who sought emergency care after consulting the site, teams who used the modules on disruptive behaviour to modify their communication and shared accountability, and hosts of learners who used the site to promote their health and wellbeing. We’ve saved and influenced thousands of lives.”
The site’s most popular module is Depression, Burnout and Suicide, which Derek expected based on the project’s initial needs assessment. But he’s delighted to report that the next two most popular modules are Fitness, Nutrition and Exercise and Resiliency. “This suggests that physicians are highly interested in health promotion and disease prevention, and will use that interest to promote their own wellbeing,” he says.
Another component of the website that gets a lot of hits is Carpe Diem, the 22-minute documentary he produced and directed in partnership with uOttawa, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and the British Columbia Physician Health Program. Launched in 2010 at the inaugural Canadian Physician Health Conference, the documentary’s goal “was to share stories of the resiliency inherent in the Canadian physician community,” he says. “To focus on the positive, the beautiful and the sustainable. We filmed all across Canada, and the locations added a depth to the dialogue that resonates well with audiences.”
Taking heart in the outlook for healthcare
Derek’s dedication to making life better for Canadian physicians has been a longstanding hallmark of his career. Since 2000, the Dr. Derek Puddester Award has been given out annually by the Canadian Association of Internes and Residents (CAIR) to “an individual who has improved the health and well being of residents in Canada.” But his overall commitment to healthcare takes a much wider view, extending to the general public as well as members of the medical community.
“I’m deeply concerned about mental healthcare in general,” he says. “We have fought a war on stigma for many, many, many years and we seem to be winning. More than ever before, patients are willing to seek care and early intervention to promote their mental health. Yet our system is poorly coordinated, largely piecemeal and lacking a national vision to respond to (an increased demand for assistance). Canadians deserve better—particularly children and youth living with highly treatable mental health concerns.”
As Derek sees it, coordination is a huge part of the solution, and the only responsible and logical way to move forward in the field. He’s happy that the era of the solo practitioner is finally over, and that governments, medical associations and patient-leaders (such as fellow Kickass Canadian Julie Drury) are helping carve out a place for an integrated model of healthcare.
In spite of his concerns about the healthcare system, he takes inspiration from our country’s efforts in primary care and health promotion. As a global leader, particularly in the areas of integration, patient safety, standard development, accreditation, medical education and health professional sustainability, he says, “Canada has much to be proud of.”
A Newfoundlander to the end
Derek’s pride in the country goes well beyond its medical accomplishments. The son of a military father, he was born in Germany but raised mainly in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Thanks to his father’s position, Derek spent much of his youth travelling across Canada, an experience that gave him “a sense of the beauty and delight that is our country.”
His favourite memories include hiking in the Rocky Mountains and building snow forts along the Atlantic coast. But no matter where he travels or lives, he insists that Newfoundland will always be home. “I feel a deep connection to the culture, the geography, the arts, the food and most importantly the people,” he says. “Every time I’m there, I feel a spiritual connection that is unlike any other I’ve enjoyed on earth… I simply can’t get to Newfoundland enough.”
An artistic landscape
Derek may well have stayed in Newfoundland, had Dr. Davidson not had the “good fortune and delight” of recruiting him to uOttawa in 2000. And he may well have missed his calling as a doctor, had another mentor—his Mount Pearl Senior High English teacher Mr. Eldred Barnes—not spotted Derek’s gift for medicine.
Derek carried out the bulk of his education at Memorial University of Newfoundland, including a BMedSc in 1994 and MD in 1995 (he’s since picked up an MEd from uOttawa in 2008 and Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching from Royal Roads University in 2011). But his academic career began in the arts, with a BA in English and Russian studies in 1991.
As a high school student, he had thoughts of pursuing medicine, but didn’t think he had enough scientific inclination to go through with it. Fatefully, Mr. Barnes confronted him and said, “You really like to help people, and medicine is an art as well as a science.” Then he dared Derek to apply to medical school, and the rest is history.
That’s not to say, however, that Derek has abandoned his artistic side. He says that his arts background informs his medical career on a near-daily basis. “The arts teach us how to feel, think and communicate. These are all skills that are necessary to a sustainable career in medicine, particularly fields like child and adolescent psychiatry and physician health. I find myself in many clinical encounters thinking about novels I read, poems I’ve enjoyed, plays I’ve seen, paintings I’ve appreciated; all help me search for pattern and meaning in the complexity I see. It’s amazing how insight into the human condition can come from such an array of disciplines… The humanities are of critical importance in medicine today—being in touch with our humanity is essential.”
In addition to applying his artistic proclivities to his patients and studies, he makes time to follow his creative passions in a more direct way. He’s written novels, plays, short stories and hundreds of poems. “Some have been published, which is always fun, and others sit contentedly in journals and diaries,” he says. His most recent novel, which he describes as “a love story about a complicated friendship that evolves into a lifelong dance of love and (quest for) meaning in a postmodern world,” has been accepted for publication and is slated for a 2012 release. (First, though, he has to complete the Time Management Guide for Canadian Physicians and Residents, which he’s writing with a colleague at McGill University for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.)
A proud Canadian family
Derek draws inspiration for his creative works from many sources. Newfoundland is high up on that list. So is his family.
The Puddester clan includes Newfoundland dogs Max and Seamus, Derek’s partner, and Derek’s beloved young son, whom he calls “the best thing that has ever happened to me. He inspires me more than any sunset, makes me laugh more than any movie or play, and sustains my spirit more than any system of belief. He gives meaning to my life.”
That Derek’s family has been recognized as a unit is perhaps one of the things about his country that makes him most proud. “As a gay man, I think it’s important that Canada is mature enough to respect my human rights, which has included the right to adopt my son, get married—and divorced—and live with an expectation of dignity and human decency.”
Working hard, playing harder
Building on his family is just one of the things Derek hopes to do as he continues to hurtle—in between play breaks—along his astonishing career trajectory.
Here’s his current to-do list:
- Have more children
- Learn and teach mindfulness meditation
- Perform in community theatre productions
- Take film classes
- Travel to new places and revisit beloved ones (especially Newfoundland and Iceland)
- Introduce new local courses in professionalism and advocacy
- Launch the Canadian Institute of Physician Health
- Publish more healthcare books
- Publish more novels, plays and poems
- Raise funds for and develop 14 additional modules for ePhysicianHealth.com
- Translate ePhysicianHealth.com into more languages
- Continue contributing to medical research and policy development, delivering dozens of keynote speeches each year, and fulfilling current duties at uOttawa and CHEO
- Take in as many productions of Evil Dead The Musical as possible
Still striking a balance. Always striking a chord.
* * *
For the latest on Derek’s work, join him on LinkedIn, follow @ePhysHealth on Twitter, read his blog, or visit ePhysicianHealth.com and eWorkplaceHealth.com.