"We ran a unit on the border of South Africa and Angola," says Dr. Jonathan Hey, Saskatoon Health Region's Division Head of Family Medicine Obstetrics, referring to the time he spent serving in the South African army.
It was 1982. The war, known as the South African Border War or the Namibian War of Independence, had been ongoing for 16 years. It would continue for another eight years, ending on March 21, 1990. For two of those years, from 1982 to 1984, Dr. Hey, born and raised in South Africa, was conscripted to the South African Defence Force.
He had two major assignments as a physician while on the force: the first had him stationed at an air force base treating pilots; the second brought him to the frontlines on the South African and Angolan border, where he spent six months flying in helicopters as a flight surgeon, treating an array of battle wounds from gunshots to amputations – an experience he describes as terrifying and traumatizing but also exciting.
"After that, you were put to rest," he says, explaining that following his tour he was sent to a small mission hospital in Zululand, where he worked for six months.
Dr. Jonathan Hey with his sons in Botswana (from left to right: Dr. Hey, Nigel and Spencer).
From there, he returned to Edendale Hospital, where he spent a combined five years before and after his army service, working as a Medical Officer (specialist) in anesthetics, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedics and pediatrics.
"At the time, I couldn't make up my mind about what I wanted to do," says the ambitious, yet humble man, whose office walls at the Lakeside Community Clinic in Saskatoon are lined with degrees and diplomas, including diplomas in anesthetics, child health and midwifery, as well as a medical degree from an Afrikaans university.
"It was interesting," he says of the fact that he could barely speak Afrikaans when he enrolled at the university.
"There were three medical schools in South Africa. I was put on the wait list for the English ones and accepted into the Afrikaans one, so I just went there," he explains, adding that he still remembers the day when he knew he was fluent in the foreign language.
"I was watching a rugby match on TV – half the program was in English and half was in Afrikaans. At the end of the program, I realized I hadn't noticed when they switched from English to Afrikaans."
In 1987, a South African friend of his who was working in Eatonia, Saskatchewan, helped him get a job in Eston, a small town located near Kindersley.
"I liked it because I knew everyone," he says of his affinity for small-town life in Saskatchewan, recalling with good-natured humour the time he almost stole a car from one his neighbours.
"I was at a hockey game when someone got hit by a puck, so I had to meet them at the hospital. I got in my car and drove off, only to realize halfway down the road that it wasn't actually my car," he says laughing, explaining that, at the time, most people left their car doors unlocked with their keys in the ignition.
"When I got to Eston, I was told you only have to lock your car in September because people will put zucchinis in the backseat – they've just got so many, they don't know what to do with them!"
Saskatchewan was where he met his wife, Shannon, of 26 years. But before permanently settling down in Canada's central province, he briefly worked as a physician in Newfoundland and New Zealand, where he encountered an unexpected request to do a caesarian section (C section) on an ewe (female sheep).
"A farmer came to me and asked if I could do a C Section on his ewe because he thought she was having obstructed labour," he says. "It was such a small town, the vet was hours away, so I said I could do it because I was doing C Sections as part of my medical career.
"It turns out, she wasn't pregnant, which was rather embarrassing for everyone involved, especially the ewe," he adds with a chuckle, explaining that she had just gotten fat and catatonic (immobile, unresponsive) from eating too much.
From New Zealand, he went back to South Africa for a short time to continue practicing anesthetics and to complete a diploma in the subject, before returning to Saskatchewan permanently in 1989.
"By that time, Shannon had reeled me in like a trout – I couldn't escape," he says affectionately of the woman he would marry two years later. The year they married, he moved with his wife to Humboldt, where he worked as a family physician at a family practice and as an anesthetist at the hospital.
Since 1995, Dr. Hey has been a family practice partner at Lakeside Medical Clinic in Saskatoon, specializing in family medicine obstetrics. Two years later, he also took on the role of Head of Family Medicine Obstetrics.
"Obstetrics is what I like most," he says, explaining that his affinity for delivering babies began when he was the Medical Officer in obstetrics and gynecology at Edendale Hospital in South Africa.
"At Edendale, we were delivering 1,500 babies a month – 18,000 a year. In Saskatoon, we deliver 5,500 a year," he says. "At Edendale, the physicians only did complicated deliveries: surgical, caesarian, breaches. The nurses would do all the normal deliveries. It was an interesting time, because I was only a year out of medical school, but suddenly I was in charge of a unit that's delivering 50 babies a day.
"My maximum in a 24-hour shift was 17 caesarians," he adds. "It was a really busy unit!"
He recalls the time he delivered a baby whose Zulu mother was so impressed with the care he provided she said she was going to name the baby after him.
"I was very excited about that," he says, adding with a bemused chuckle that she named the baby Doctor because she didn't know his name.
"That was a bit of a downer," he adds with a smile, explaining that at birth, Zulus are given an English name and a traditional one.
Now, as a family physician at Lakeside Medical Clinic, Dr. Hey is part of a small group of family physicians (about 25 per cent) who do their own deliveries, all low risk.
"There are few of us who do our own deliveries, so we're on call all the time waiting for the phone to ring," says the robust 62-year-old who was participating in triathlons up until five years ago.
"What I enjoy most about delivering babies is the relationship you develop with the mother and her partner – you look after the mother throughout her pregnancy, you're there for the delivery and you watch the baby grow up. That's a wonderful experience," he says.
Dr. Hey has been instrumental in developing and teaching the Advanced Labour Risk Management (ALARM) course, administered by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada. He's also responsible for starting a program that ensures all newborn babies are examined by a family physician before they go home. As part of a newborn nursery roster rotation, a group of family physicians have been going into the hospital for 10 years to examine newborns, as well as to put a care plan in place and to provide the newborn's caregivers with the names of family physicians if they don't have one.
"I'm proud that we've gotten family physicians in the hospital – the pillar of family medicine is continuity of care," he says.
Dr. Hey has three children of his own: Spencer, 26, Nigel, 23, and Rebecca, 21.
He says his offspring are currently threatening an intervention, "they say I'm too old to work these long hours."
But he says he has no plans to slow down.
"I enjoy what I do," he explains, though he's quick to add that he does have other interests, which include writing short stories – he's had two articles about his travels to Namibia and Botswana published in Doctors Review – and photography.
He's also an ornithologist.
"I enjoy bird watching – I'm one of those weird people," he says, laughing. "I like the colours and the excitement of seeing something new."
His favourite birds, both South African, are the lilac-breasted roller with its bright plumage, and the Narina trogon, a largely green and red, medium-sized bird.
"I said to my wife once, 'When I retire, I'm going to go take pictures of all the birds of South Africa.' She just looked at me and said, 'Someone's already done that' – and my dreams were destroyed!" he exclaims jokingly.
The piece of advice Dr. Hey finds himself giving most often to patients is to find time for yourself.
"Having said that, I don't do it," he says, with the hint of a smile, "but that's what I tell people."