When not delivering babies, Dr. Jocelyne Martel likes to drink espresso, travel to Europe, and bake chocolate cake and caramels – to the delight of her husband and colleagues. She’s even been known to make a marshmallow or two.
“She’s Julia Child!” exclaims Dr. Annette Epp, her counterpart with whom she heads Saskatoon Health Region’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
As the clinical head of the obstetrics side of the department, Dr. Martel is responsible for the provision of maternal services, including all prenatal (before birth), intrapartum (labour and delivery) and postpartum (following childbirth) services in the Region.
While fond of her colleague’s description, Dr. Martel is quick to point out that she’s no Julia Child.
“She’s very much a scientist,” says Dr. Martel of Julia Child. “She’s the original creator of the test kitchen, trying recipes over and over again, and I’m not like that. I use recipes as a base to start, but I don’t always follow them.”
Dr. Martel compares cooking to an evolving science, whose ingredients, combinations and techniques are always changing – just like medicine.
“In medicine, you can find algorithms to follow and combinations of things that will lead you to a diagnosis and management plan, but I think your greatest success is when there’s an art that’s added. That happens in cooking when you put your touch on something – an alteration or a change of shape, how you combine ingredients or present something. When you apply that original thinking in medicine, what you’re doing is individualizing it to the patient.
Dr. Jocelyne Martel
“It’s never wrong to start with a core recipe,” she continues, “but I think the best physicians are the ones who can do both – who can rely on the science and individualize care for a better outcome. If I were a patient, I would want that.
“What makes medicine fascinating is that it’s slightly different every day,” she adds, explaining that she often sees patients when they present with complicated medical problems in their pregnancies; for example, high blood pressure, diabetes or prenatal bleeding. Some of her patients have had transplants prior to becoming pregnant and require specialized care, while others need assistance because of a multiple birth – she once delivered quintuplets (five babies) into the world.
Then, there are the women who are healthy, but who find out their fetus is not developing normally; the baby might have, for example, a heart or spinal defect.
“I like trying to make their pregnancies feel as normal as possible,” she says of the women who experience complicated medical problems during pregnancy. “The expectation is that everything is going to be okay, so when it’s not, it’s very difficult. It’s hard, but it can also be very rewarding when I’m able to help them through a successful pregnancy.”
Dr. Martel says the best advice she’s received in her career is to take the time to let patients tell their story.
“Hearing the narrative from the patient or her family is much more helpful than a standardized approach,” she says.
This lesson was reinforced early on in Dr. Martel’s career when a woman from a smaller community was rushed to Royal University Hospital when it was discovered that her baby would be born breech – with its bottom first instead of head first.
“This community was not able to provide caesarian sections (C-sections), so they sent her by ambulance to us,” Dr. Martel says. “This woman was an experienced mom – she’d had many other babies – but, in this particular pregnancy, she had not had any prenatal care, including ultra sounds.”
Just as Dr. Martel was getting ready to go ahead with the surgery, the woman – who had been placed under spinal anesthetic, meaning she would be awake during surgery in order to see her baby as soon as she or he was delivered – said to Dr. Martel, ‘What about the second baby?’
“There was a drape between her and me,” says Dr. Martel, “so I looked over the drape and said, ‘I thought you didn’t have any ultrasounds in this pregnancy.’”
The woman responded, ‘I didn’t, but there are two babies in there.’
“Of course, she was right – she was an experienced mom,” continues Dr. Martel, “but nobody had actually heard her side of the story. We made all of our decisions based on what we were told from the referring community. We examined her, confirmed the diagnosis, but we didn’t go any further, and we should have because we learned a lot. I said to the resident, ‘If an experienced mom says she has twins, she has twins. We don’t need an ultrasound for that.’ So, we delivered one baby, and then we delivered a second baby.
“It came from the mother what was really going on, and it drove that point home to me – that we need to listen to our patients more,” adds Dr. Martel. “The patients who entrust their care to us deserve the best we can give them.”
Dr. Martel didn’t always know she wanted to be on obstetrician. She started her university career in journalism, but after two years decided to do a degree in plant physiology instead.
While a student, Dr. Martel’s father, a pediatrician, brought her to a caesarian section birth.
“I think he wanted me to be fascinated by the baby,” says Dr. Martel, “but I wasn’t fascinated by the baby. I was fascinated by the delivery and the surgery, so I went to medical school.”
Dr. Martel says the mother who allowed her to watch the surgery also had a positive impact on her.
“My dad asked her permission for me to be present,” says Dr. Martel. “The fact that she was willing to share that moment with me after having a long labour and requiring a caesarian section was very generous and giving. It made me realize how special that relationship was between her and her physician that allowed her to be comfortable with that.”
Within 48 hours of her first shift as a doctor-in-training on an obstetrics and gynecology ward in Regina, Dr. Martel knew she had found her specialty.
“When I told a friend how fascinated I was by obstetrics and gynecology, she said, ‘I knew right away you would love that.’ Other people knew I would like it before I knew,” she says, laughing,
“When I started working 20 years ago, I did a little bit of everything,” she continues. “Over time, it became clear that I needed to spend more time doing maternal-fetal medicine (high-risk pregnancies) – the population that we have required more dedicated time to that and it was my passion, so I stopped doing gynecology.”
Dr. Martel is also passionate about teaching. She currently teaches courses for both the University of Saskatchewan and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. In the past, she has also evaluated residents across Canada in obstetrics and gynecology with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“I don’t think being older or having more years behind you makes you a better doctor,” says Dr. Martel, who has delivered more than 6,000 babies, many high-risk, during her 20 year career. “We need to recognize that critical thinking and evaluation is what makes a good physician. I’ve also learned that we provide better care when it’s multi-disciplinary – when physicians, nurses, residents and medical students work together, because together we provide the most information about the situation, the right level of care and intervention, and the best experience for the family.”
When not at the hospital caring for patients and their families, Dr. Martel travels with her husband throughout North America and Europe, where they cycle and take in the local music scene. She also likes to take cooking classes while travelling, and to host dinner parties while at home.
“I like to cook all day for a dinner party; that would be a good Saturday for me,” she says, smiling. “I’m the kind of person who, when I make a recipe successfully, I’ll make it 100 times in a row before moving on to something else.”
Right now, she’s perfecting pies – classic pumpkin pie and the less popular, but equally delicious, raisin pie.