‘Dr. Elaine’ retires after four-decade career here

Heather Latter

Besides ringing in the New Year this weekend, Dr. Elaine Spencer also will be celebrating her retirement from the Fort Frances Community Clinic after practising here as a family physician for the last 43 years.
“I know I’m going to miss it,” she said in an interview yesterday morning, noting she had mixed feelings about putting in her notice but knew it was time.
She and her husband, Dr. Jas Spencer, who retired in February, 2007, immigrated to Fort Frances from England in 1968 to fulfill the need of a physician and general surgeon here.
“He came out to look in the summer and obviously had a nice time and thought it was wonderful,” recalled Dr. Elaine, as she often is referred to.
“We set off in October and we came across by ship, then by train to Thunder Bay, and then Dr. Johnstone picked us up in his car.”
She admitted that, at first, she had wondered where they had come.
“It’s very different from England,” she remarked. “But everybody was very friendly.”
After the first winter, which she recalled wasn’t so good because she wasn’t doing much work, things began to look up as she was able to do more anesthesia—a specialty she trained for in England.
Then in 1976, when several doctors left at once, she applied to become a partner and was accepted.
“I’ve been a proper part of the group ever since,” Dr. Elaine said, adding that being able to work closely with colleagues has been very beneficial.
Dr. Cynthia Saliba, who is the newest doctor at the local clinic, has her office down the hall while Dr. Robert Nugent has worked across the hall from Dr. Elaine.
“We ask questions and communicate,” she stressed. “A group is a good place to be.”
Dr. Elaine said she has spent a lot of time with Dr. Saliba since she arrived here in September, 2010 and that she will be taking on her patients in the new year.
Her advice to Dr. Saliba and any new doctors recruited to the area: learn slowly.
“You can easily become overwhelmed because remote and rural general practice is quite different,” Dr. Elaine explained.
“You have more responsibilities for a lot more things than you would if you were in a city.”
And while there were some rough patches raising a family of three children with both parents in the medical field, such as Dr. Elaine having to refrain from delivering babies, as well as doing anesthesia, because of the mid-night demands, she refers to her career with fond memories.
“I really like the anesthesia . . . and certainly seeing the babies and moms, the pre-natal care,” she replied when asked what the highlights of her career have been.
Dr. Elaine also was elected a life member of the Ontario Medical Association because of her involvement in medical politics. She served as chair of District 10, which is the whole of Northwestern Ontario, for about 15 years, retiring from that back in September.
She also has been president of the clinic many times.
But why did Dr. Elaine and her husband stay and practise in Fort Frances for so long?
“We like it here,” she responded. “It’s nice here. We like the lake.”
She admitted some winters have been quite cold but mild ones (such as this season so far) have been good.
“And it’s handy being across from International Falls because you can go anywhere by plane,” she added.
In addition, two of her four children still live in Fort Frances and she now has grandchildren here, whom she plans to spend plenty of time with now that she’ll be retired.
“We usually spend a lot of time at the arena watching hockey and figure skating, but I was often late. Now I won’t be,” she smiled.
Dr. Elaine also plans to spend more time gardening and travelling.
However, she is the local coroner, who investigates sudden, unexpected deaths, and will continue that position when she retires from the clinic in order to “keep her brain active.”
And while she’ll miss the clinic staff and many of her patients, Dr. Elaine said she still will see them around town.
“But they won’t be able to ask me any [medical] questions,” she chuckled.