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Thursday, February 2, 2017 in Physician Leaders, Staff Recognition

"When my daughter was born, I had to resuscitate her," says Dr. David Campbell of his first child, who was not breathing immediately following her birth.

An obstetric anesthesiologist, Dr. Campbell is well versed in caring for newborns in distress and was able to assist with the resuscitation of the newest addition to his family.

"I always remind her that I gave her her first kiss in the middle of her forehead," he says with an affectionate chuckle, adding that his son's birth two years later was far less dramatic.

"He came out with a grin on his face, and he's had a grin on his face ever since," he says smiling.

Dr. Campbell is a man who values family above all else, and it's something he takes with him into the operating room with his patients.

"When I provide care for you, I care for you as I would someone who's related to me – my mom, my dad, my brother, my wife, my kids, my grandma, my grandpa. That's what patient-focused care means to me," says the Unified Department Head of the Department of Anesthesiology for Saskatoon Health Region and the University of Saskatchewan (U of S).

"I teach my residents that in everything we do, we can never lose sight of the person on the operating table," he says. "Everything we do is about providing the best care, in the safest environment for the patient, to make their experience the best experience possible."


Dr. David Campbell in his office, surrounded by photos of his family.

A reluctant medical student 

Dr. Campbell didn't always want to be a physician.

When his graduate studies supervisor suggested he apply to medical school, he remembers saying, "Are you crazy? I'm not going to do that!"

"I wanted to be a scientist," he says, explaining that at the time he was completing a Master's degree in biochemistry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, his hometown, and had his sights set on the University of Toronto for a PhD in the same field.

"My supervisor worked in the clinical chemistry lab at the hospital, and I had the opportunity to join the phlebotomy team – the team of healthcare providers who take blood samples from patients in the hospital," he explains, adding that he had previously worked in an animal lab and discovered it was not for him.

"As a phlebotomy technician, I was exposed to patients in the hospital for the first time," he continues. "It opened a whole new world to me. I got to know a number of the patients because they were in the hospital for a long time, and I realized that I really enjoy interacting with patients – that interpersonal relationship became extremely important to me."

So, he applied to medical school and got in, but his supervisor still wasn't satisfied.

"You need to complete your dissertation and graduate with your Masters of Science," his supervisor told him.

Once again, he followed the advice he was given, and during his first year of medical school, he also completed a Master's degree in biochemistry.

He went on to do an internship in Saskatoon at St. Paul's Hospital, where he met his wife – an intensive care nurse at the hospital. He then moved to Vancouver to complete a four-year residency in anesthesiology at the University of British Columbia, where he encountered one of two his two mentors – a physician who specialized in obstetric anesthesia.

"She had a profound influence on me," Dr. Campbell says of his mentor, who he describes as caring and compassionate. "I could see myself emulating the way she interacted with patients. To see couples experiencing the birth of their child touched me very deeply, and I became profoundly interested in not only the clinical practice of obstetric anesthesia but also the opportunities to improve patient care in this field."

"We did a couple of research projects together," he says of his mentor, "and it became quite clear that this was an area of anesthesiology I really, truly enjoyed."

After his residency, he was planning to return to Saskatoon, where he had accepted an appointment as an assistant professor at the U of S and a position to provide clinical care at Royal University Hospital (RUH). However, he deferred this opportunity for a year to complete an obstetric anesthesia subspecialty fellowship at Harvard Medical School's Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. It was here he met his second mentor, whom he describes as a world authority in obstetric anesthesia and a phenomenal clinician and clinical researcher.

Alongside his mentor, he began providing epidurals to women in labour that, unlike other epidurals of the time, allowed women to get up and walk around for a few hours. When he returned to Saskatoon in the summer of 1994, he brought the technique, known as combined spinal epidural analgesia, with him to his new position as an assistant professor and obstetric anesthesiologist at the U of S and RUH.

Over the next few years, alongside a team of researchers, he developed a walking epidural that allows women to get up and move around throughout their entire labour.

"Since about 1999, it's been routine for anesthesiologists in Saskatoon to provide an epidural using a mixture of commonly used medications that we developed at Royal University Hospital, allowing our moms to receive effective labour pain relief, to walk throughout their entire labour if they choose to do so, and to have the strength to push their babies out," he says.

He and his team also introduced patient-controlled epidurals, allowing labouring women to administer their own relief through an infusion that is programmed by the physician.

"I'm proud to say that we were one of the first institutions, if not the first, to incorporate patient-controlled 'walking' epidurals into our routine clinical care," he says. "Our patients are now receiving state-of-the-art pain relief in labour and have been doing so for well over 15 years, which is truly remarkable."

The physicians and residents in the Department of Anesthesia administer about 3,500 epidurals a year to the more than 5,500 women who deliver at RUH, and they provide anesthesia to more than 1,000 women who require a Cesarean section.

"Many patients who come to the operating room end up having a general anesthetic, which means they are asleep during their surgery," he says, "but in obstetric anesthesia, most pregnant women are awake and pain-free. It's rewarding to know that someone who was absolutely petrified of having a baby in a certain way (e.g., Caesarian) appreciates the care they received and were able to remain awake and pain-free while experiencing the birth of their baby.

"The nurses tease me of talking a lot to expectant mothers in the operating room," he says good-naturedly of his operating room colleagues, "but my job is to make you feel comfortable in the operating room when I know you're scared. I get a lot of moms who say, 'Please don't stop talking.'

"I always ask those moms to say that a little louder, so the nurses hear it," he says, chuckling.

"The most rewarding part of my practice," he continues, "is when the neonatal team presents mom with her baby for the first time while her Cesarean section is being completed. This is really what drives my passion for obstetric anesthesia."

Other passions and pursuits

Dr. Campbell is also a tenured professor who teaches undergraduate and post-graduate medical students in the College of Medicine at the U of S.

"I need them to be better than me," he says of his students, "because they're going to look after me at some point. If they don't know more than I do, if they're not better than I am clinically, then I've failed as an educator. Hopefully, they'll find a mentor or two along the way, and they'll be as profoundly affected as I was."

Throughout his career, Dr. Campbell has volunteered to teach nursing students, emergency medical services trainees and air ambulance staff about obstetric emergencies, and for 15 years, he volunteered to teach a monthly prenatal education class at RUH to expectant mothers and their supporters.

"That was one of the most satisfying things I did over the course of my career – to provide educational information to expectant mothers and their significant others, dispelling many urban myths, so they can make informed decisions about their labour journey," he says.

Somehow, Dr. Campbell still finds the time to volunteer outside of his area of clinical expertise.

"I married into a family of volunteers," he says, noting that his mother-in-law is the former director of volunteer services at Saskatoon City Hospital.

For more than two decades, he and his family have joined a group of volunteers who sing Christmas carols at Saskatoon City Hospital on Christmas morning.

"I always try to arrange my clinical shift to be at work on Christmas Eve night or Christmas Day night, so we could be at City Hospital Christmas morning," he says, adding, "I wasn't always awake, but that's probably a good thing because I really can't sing!"

For about 10 years, his family has also been serving Christmas dinner at the Friendship Inn and has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity.

"Every once in a while we've gone for a drive to see what my family has helped to build. It's kind of cool," he says, with a hint of excitement in his voice.

He also likes to play golf and used to play hockey. He began refereeing hockey in his early teens and was eventually recruited to the professional ranks of the American Hockey League, which had several franchises in Halifax during his time in the league. While studying as a medical student, he had the opportunity to be on the ice when the Canadian Olympic team played an exhibition game against the Olympic team from the Soviet Union.  

"My dad was very upset when I came back from a National Hockey League camp and told him they had offered me a job, but I turned it down to continue studying medicine," he says affectionately of his father, explaining that his dad was a referee who put skates on him when he was three years old.

"I feel completely free if I have a pair of skates on, but now I'm most comfortable on the golf course – that's just a natural place for me," says the former junior club champion in golf. "I've been a golfer since I was about 10 years old. My dad was in the military, and I spent a lot time at the golf course, owned by the military. He would drop me off before work in the morning, and I'd go around the course twice before he picked me up eight hours later."

As a university student, he got a summer job in maintenance on the Hartland Point Golf Course along the harbour in Halifax.

"The best part was that I would be there before the sun rose over the ocean every morning. It was awesome!" he exclaims, adding, "I have a philosophy of no regret. Every day, I try to live my life to the fullest, and hopefully, make somebody smile."

Last Modified: Tuesday, March 7, 2017 |
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