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Doctoring a new pace


Becoming a physician is a career choice that one does not make lightly. It’s a self-sacrificing call that puts people’s health and lives above one’s own. For Doctor Theodore Marx, spending a good portion of his life as a physician in the Valley has been a memorable and rewarding career.
“I was 30 years old when I decided to take the plunge into medicine,” said Marx. “It was 18 months later, that I found myself sitting outside one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the University of Pretoria,
waiting for my first lecture to start. I started talking to a fellow student. He was significantly younger than
I was and his first question to me was, ‘why is an old man like you doing this?’ It was a question that I asked myself many times in the year that followed. I picked up the nickname of ‘Oupa’, which means
grandfather, and some called me that. Fortunately for me, there were a few more senior students like myself.”
“I left behind a senior position in the Industrial Psychology Department of the South African Railways. It
seemed a secure position at the time. Political changes in the country that came later were much larger than anticipated and changed a lot of things. The reasons for my decision were many. I was not sure
that I would be happy to continue in my then career for another 35 years. Supervising the work of others was not my cup of tea and I found myself moving further away from the field of psychology, the part of my work that I enjoyed. The possibility of changes in the political scene was a consideration too. I started off considering specializing in psychiatry, but it soon became clear to me that general practice provided
more meaningful opportunities and interaction with people. I knew that general practice would also allow me more choices in where I could work and live.” Studying in the medical field was a time of exploration for Marx. 
He had been out of school for some time and getting back into it seemed a bit daunting at best. “The first year of my medical studies was quite traumatic with having to revisit mathematics, physics and chemistry,” noted Marx. “I had been out of school for 14 years and my knowledge had gathered a lot of dust in the years that had passed. It was also a year of personal rediscovery for me. Unemployed and with no income was a very uncertain feeling. The years that followed my first year were busy and intense, but I enjoyed them tremendously. The internship at the end of my studies in 1978, proved to be a very challenging year with long hours and little sleep. “I think I would be amiss if I did not mention the significant role that my wife, Ucki, played in this journey. Without her support, both financially and
emotionally, this journey would not have been possible and likely would not have started.” The work that had to be put in for Marx and his wife to come to Canada, and for him to work as a physician, was
difficult. It was a rigorous journey filled with lots of obstacles and challenges along the way.
“What followed after the hospital year, were two years in a mine hospital close to where I grew up and then seven years in general practice in Kempton Park,” explained Marx. “We often spoke about imigrating,
but nothing concrete materialized. Our initial attempts were unsuccessful and we had more or less accepted that emigration was not possible. “It was at a supper meeting that we heard about a South African physician that was emigrating to Canada. It was somebody I knew from my days at University
and Ucki made contact with him shortly before he left for Canada. He brought it to our attention that it was possible to get into Canada via Manitoba, if one passed an evaluating exam. From him, we got the information on how to start on this journey. 
“What followed was a year of study, which whilst working fulltime, was not fun or easy, “ added Marx. “I managed to pass the exam, but the prerequisite before being able to look for a position was that I had
to register with the College of Physicians and Surgeons in person. This led to a trip to Canada.”
Marx’s first trip to Canada was his first introduction to the bitter cold. He arrived in Winnipeg just after a massive snowstorm in 1986 and it was a complete shock to his system. “I arrived in Winnipeg in January of 1987,” said Marx. “It was bitterly cold and in places, the sidewalks were still piled high with snow. I felt quite overwhelmed by the snow, the cold weather and how different everything looked.
“Unfortunately, the interview never happened. I was informed that more information on my postgraduate experience was required.
To my disadvantage, this was not information that I could access from Canada. I found myself back on the snow-filled sidewalk with a return ticket to South Africa, two weeks down the road. I was devastated.
At the time the physician I referred to previously was practicing in McCreary and I found myself heading there for a brief layover. I will always remain grateful to Dr. Johan du Plooy and his wife Suzanne. They
provided me with a haven and a sympathetic ear when I needed it most. “After a few days of recovery in McCreary I summoned the courage to do some exploring,” noted Marx. “From McCreary, I managed to get
to Russell by bus where I met with a physician who had previously worked in Africa. He was kind enough to provide me with a bed overnight, super steak supper and a glass of wine, maybe it was two? He told me that he heard South Africans were tough and dropped me off outside Russell so I could hitchhike to Roblin.” Marx found himself unprepared for the conditions that he found himself in. Firstly, it was freezing cold and he was not equipped with the proper clothing to be travelling about rural Manitoba, let alone
hitchhike. He was able to acquire some proper winter clothing before making his way to Swan River. Little did he know, this trek would be an enlightening moment in this whole undertaking. 
“After leaving Roblin, I made my way to Swan River, arriving at the old bus depot, which at that time was located across the tracks,” said Marx. “From there I made my way to the Valley Hotel, where I spent my first night in Swan River. The room was small and certainly not very luxurious, but it was warm and I felt safe. I decided to have an early night when from somewhere music was being played very loudly at such an early hour. What however was touching and even ironic, was the song that was played turned out to
be ‘My Hometown’ by Bruce Springsteen. In a way I considered that to be an omen. “The following morning I made my way to the old Swan Valley Hospital where I was able to meet everybody, except
Dr. Jonsson, whose practice I later took over.
There were no vacancies for a physician in Swan River at the time, but I was quite impressed with what I saw. I thought I could see myself living there. Dr. Theodore invited me to lunch, which I greatly appreciated the hospitality.
It was then that I met his wife, Ida, for the first time. I was about to make my journey back and she was kind enough not to drop me outside Swan River, but took me to Roblin, from there I made my way
back to McCreary and finally to Winnipeg and then South Africa. This was yet another act of kindness which left me with good feelings about Swan River.” 
Marx left the Valley knowing what needed to be done to get himself positioned in Manitoba as a practicing physician. He began to make the necessary arrangements for both his career and to have his family relocated.
“On return to South Africa, I managed to get the necessary information to be able to get registered as a physician in Manitoba,” explained Marx. “What I needed then was a job offer in Manitoba and the search 
started. I wrote letters to just about every small town in Manitoba that had a possible position for a physician, but with no luck. The shortage of physicians then did not seem as acute as it had since become. After an on-off situation, I finally bought Dr. Jonsson’s practice. I think I was likely one of the last physicians to buy a practice. It used to be a common way of acquiring a medical practice. “I arrived in Swan River in July 1987 to start practicing as a physician. Ucki, Reynald and Arno followed six weeks later. The medical screening and immigration process they had to undergo, had to be done outside of South Africa. I was very happy and relieved to see them arrive in Winnipeg.”
Looking back, Marx had a few options as to where he could work as a physician and his family could relocate. They had three choices in mind and they were New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
“In Australia, we would’ve been located in the desert areas and in New Zealand, most of the positions were available in the outback,” noted Marx. “The white plains of Canada seemed to be an acceptable alternative for us. We had no idea of what real cold was. A below-freezing temperature in southern
Africa, during winter, would have been a most talked about event, should it ever happen. Minus 35 Celsius did not sound possible and nobody at home ever spoke about a wind chill factor. Playing in the snow sounded like fun. Nobody told us that it does not go away in the winter, has to be shovelled and turns icy in the spring.
“What brought us to Canada was the impression that it was a gentle and peaceful place with a culture we could understand, accept and make our own. We were not wrong in that impression. The way we were accepted and treated during our stay in Swan River confirmed that. Both Ucki and I enjoyed and appreciated our time in Swan River. I felt and still think it is a good place to raise children. I say this, it is because I feel that people that live close to the earth and make their living from it perhaps have a more realistic and less materialistic view of life. That is what I sensed when I first came to Swan River.”
Marx spent 27 years running his practice in Swan River. He felt it was a most rewarding career and endeavour; one during which he built respected professional working relationships as well as lifelong
friendships. “The 27 years I spent in practice in Swan River went by much too fast,” noted Marx.
“There were difficult times, but also good and rewarding times. It was my privilege to work with a team of supportive physicians. That made life a lot easier. We all worked from separate offices, yet there was a
very cohesive team spirit. Medicine in a remote community can be challenging and even scary at times. Without the help and support of colleagues, it would have been very difficult to survive. But the feelings
of support and cohesiveness were not confined to my physician colleagues. My interaction with the nursing staff was also a very rewarding experience. They became the extra hands and eyes that were
needed to get through the day. Many of them have remained good friends long after retirement. “I should mention so many individuals that were part of my life in Swan River. I think of the fishing trips with the
guys from maintenance, the staff from medical records, the cafeteria staff and the cleaning staff. They all formed part of my day and gave meaning to it. The corridor conversations were very much part of my
social life and interactions.” 
Then came a remarkably tough decision for Marx to make. After spending 27 years of building a successful practice, with staff and patients he had become fond of, he realized it was time to embrace a
change of pace. “I always said that I would retire whilst people still wanted me to stay,” said Marx. “I
never wanted to be in a position where people felt that there was a need for me to go. I have seen this happen more than once and I found it incredibly sad. It was not an easy decision to make, but I realized that my ability to cope with the expectations, stress, and long hours that form an integral part of general practice, was not what it was when I started practicing medicine; it was becoming more difficult. I also
wanted to be able to spend some time with my family. I think it is they, in the end, that paid the biggest price for my involvement in medicine.”
Looking back on his time in medicine, Marx had many positive experiences and many trying times as well. There are things about being a physician that he still misses to this day and some that he is relieved to leave behind. 
“It is the sense of purpose that I had whilst in practice that I miss the most,” he noted. “It gave 
meaning to my life and it was very rewarding. It gave me a reason to get up in the morning and I
found the interaction with patients always enriching, but very demanding. I miss the interaction with colleagues and the morning coffee room conversations. It is with them that I could discuss frustrations,
fears and expectations encountered in practice. It was the opportunity to do this that enabled most of us
to manage the responsibilities that medicine brings.
“What I don’t miss are the sleepless nights, the anxiety when dealing with a difficult delivery, a heart attack, stroke or aneurysm. Not to mention overdoses, motor vehicle accidents and other causes of
trauma. Having to get up in the middle of the night to give an anesthetic or to assist with surgery never was fun. What also remains with me, is the frustration and the heartache when faced with a situation where medicine fails to bring the outcome we had hoped for and also the relentless cruelty of cancer. These things I do not miss “
Enjoying life on the west coast now, Marx has adapted to his life of retirement and found new hobbies and passions to embark on. He still has fond memories of life in the Valley and eagerly waits for the
public health restrictions to lift, so he and Ucki can travel a bit more.
“We are happy on Vancouver Island,” he said. “We enjoy the milder climate, the opportunity for long walks and the beautiful scenery. I don’t miss shovelling snow, but I miss the beauty of it, the silence that it brings and the fact that for a time, it puts a cover on the grey of winter. I look back to the visits I used to make to the Swan River Peavey Mart and the many conversations inside and outside will always be remembered.
“Unfortunately, we are far away from our son Arno, his wife Heather and our precious granddaughter,
Mila, in Thunder Bay. This makes visits more difficult. Reynald, our other son, fortunately, is closer. Like everybody else, our lives have been dented by COVID-19 and the restrictions that have come with it. It
means the loss of precious family time with the lack of opportunity to ever make up for this.”
Retirement can be a time that is looked forward to by many and a time that can cause uncertainty for others. Marx knew that change is good and sometimes even necessary, but can bring in a kind of sadness
to other aspects of one’s life as well. “I can only tell you what I found most difficult in dealing with retirement,” he concluded.
“For some people life starts when they retire and for others, it is often a feeling that life has ended. I stayed on in Swan River for more than two years after I retired and there was a duality in that. It allowed
me to remain in contact with people that played very important roles in my life, but it also required me to develop a new identity and to redefine my relationship with those people. I found that challenging, but it brought a new perspective, they were no longer my patients but they remained my friends. I appreciate that very much then and now.
“What I do know is that retirement has gone by a lot quicker than I thought it would and I will likely never manage to finish all the things that we planned. My only comment would be to prepare for retirement and to use it wisely, as you never know how long it will last.
“I have so many people I would like to acknowledge from my time as a physician The people of the Swan River Valley be they former patients; friends; physician colleagues that shared the load; nursing colleagues that made the load lighter; all the support staff at the hospital; my office staff who tolerated my idiosyncrasies for so long; the ones that are no longer with us yet linger as good memories;
and Ucki.”