When Dr. Mark James goes home at the end of the day, he likes to walk around his acreage, hone his archery skills with long-bows and wooden arrows he creates himself by hand, or don his scuba gear to explore Saskatchewan’s dark green, often-murky waters.
“It keeps me out of mischief,” he says of his scuba diving adventures, which have taken him as far as New Zealand and South Africa, the latter where both he and his wife lived until they moved to Saskatoon in 1998.
Dr. Mark James
“There was a lot of serendipity in getting to Canada – it was the stars aligning,” he says. “An opportunity arose to be part of the initial start-up for a Critical Care Associate program, and I’m grateful for it.”
Dr. James says the nearly 20 years he has been with the Region have been rewarding – and it shows. Today, he is the Department Head of Adult Critical Care.
“As department head, I have a much better appreciation of how our health region works as a system,” he says. “The most rewarding part is the appreciation I’ve gained for the people working within our system. I’ve gotten to know my colleagues in other departments and to understand how their challenges affect each of our areas.”
As an example, he cites Safer Every Day, a 90-day initiative dedicated to safety that took place last fall.
“I co-led the sepsis working group as part of the safety initiative,” he says. “What I learned from the initiative is that our staff and volunteers – nurses, doctors, pharmacists, lab technicians and patient advisors – are committed to making safety a priority for our patients. I have a new appreciation for the people working within our system who are doing good things for our patients. We really do care – it’s not just lip service.”
In addition to his role as department head, Dr. James works as a physician on the intensive care unit (ICU) at St. Paul’s and Royal University Hospitals for 10 weeks every year. He says the opportunity he has to work at both sites makes life interesting.
“I get to manage complex patients, and they differ at each site. It’s that complexity that makes it stimulating,” he says, adding that while there are some very high highs working in the ICU, there are also some very low lows.
“One of my highs is the successful use of ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation),” he says, explaining that the extracorporeal technique provides cardiac and respiratory support to patients whose heart and lungs cannot exchange enough gas to sustain life.
“It’s an expensive, resource-intensive technology, but it’s pretty valuable, especially to young patients at risk,” he says, his passion for the technology evident.
The lows are the patients he sees who have suffered from what he describes as unnecessary trauma, the result of vehicle collisions or other catastrophic injuries.
“I find those quite distressing because it seems almost senseless that you have people come to harm, often as a consequence of poor choice,” he says.
Other types of patients Dr. James treats in the ICU include cardiac, vascular or general surgery patients, stroke patients or those who have suffered a head injury, as well as medically ill patients experiencing renal failure, lung failure or respite failure.
“In the ICU, we get to see a broad spectrum of patients,” he says. “It’s challenging, but it can also be exceptionally rewarding. In addition, we’re involved in a much greater medical community. We get to interact with surgeons, physicians, nurses, social workers and speech language pathologists.”
It’s this community that motivates Dr. James to come to work every day.
“I work in a community that’s analogous to a family,” he says. “I believe strong teams are premised on the fact that you play to each team members’ strengths. It’s with that vision I come to work, and every day is a positive reinforcement of that vision. As a team, we work in a cohesive fashion to better the lives of the patients we have in our care. I appreciate teamwork because medicine is a complex world.”
Patients and their families are also part of the team, he says.
“We have an open-door visiting policy that enables families to spend a lot of time at the bedside,” he says. “We invite and encourage families to spend time on daily ward rounds with us. The family gets to listen in, comment and provide us with information about the patient, so we get to know the families quite well.”
When not in his office or the ICU, Dr. James practices as an anesthesiologist two days a week. Anesthesia is his specialty and the path that led him to the ICU.
“There are various routes by which you can become an ICU doctor,” he says. “After graduating, I dabbled in surgery, but I didn’t like the lifestyle very much, so I looked at other alternatives, and critical care seemed to be a natural extension of anesthesia. What inspired me about anesthesia is the fact that it’s applied pharmacology and physiology. It’s the basics of medicine – knowing how our bodies work and how drugs influence, and are influenced by, the body.”
He also sits on the Canadian Blood Services Organ Donation and Transplantation Expert Advisory Committee.
“I have a friend who lost a son who became an organ donor,” he says. “That was the impetus for me to get involved.”
When not juggling his many professional responsibilities – director, ICU physician, anesthesiologist and committee member – Dr. James runs a small flock of sheep on his acreage with his wife and two sons, ages 16 and 21. He also likes to visit the police station, where his dog Ozzie now works on the canine unit.