Grit and Goals: DFCM Resident Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser on the Team Sport of Emergency Medicine
By Alisa Kim
After a storied hockey career that culminated in being inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hayley Wickenheiser pursued another childhood dream: becoming a doctor. She traces her interest in the medical field to her youth, when one of her friends was badly injured after being hit by a truck. “There were 30 kids in our neighbourhood, and we’d go as a pack to check on her. I remember the doctors and nurses being very kind. We were little and they made it less scary for us. It was at that point that I got a real interest in medicine,” says Wickenheiser, who is in her second year of residency at the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto.
Wickenheiser was named to the Canadian women’s national ice hockey team at the age of 15 years, but despite being laser focused on the sport during her young adulthood, she felt a pull toward medicine. “I always knew I needed a life after hockey and thought that would be a good one,” says Wickenheiser, who is training to become an emergency medicine physician.
She will begin her enhanced skill year in emergency medicine at DFCM in July 2023. Wickenheiser says she chose to do her residency at DFCM because of the wide breadth of topics learned and for generalist training that would allow for maximum flexibility in her career. Against a backdrop of fewer graduating medical students ranking family medicine as their first choice when applying to residency, Wickenheiser says she is very happy with her decision. “Family medicine is touted as less 'sexy' than specialist training, but I think it's the best kept secret in medicine and one of the most underrated routes to choose. I have zero regrets about choosing DFCM—it's been amazing. From awesome professional development to preceptor teaching, it's really a choose-your-own-adventure at times. I like that.”
After announcing her retirement from the sport in January of 2017, she began medical school that same year at the University of Calgary. The transition was eased by years of preparation. For close to a decade before her retirement, Wickenheiser shadowed an emergency department doctor, which helped her realize her affinity for the specialty. “I don’t do well sitting all day long,” she says. She is quick to rattle off the things that drew her to emergency medicine: “Every patient encounter is different. You have to think quickly, work in a team and be very good under pressure. It feels very much like a team sport.”
At that point, Wickenheiser, who is widely regarded as the greatest female hockey player of all time, thought she would be done with the sport. “Then the Toronto Maple Leafs called a few months into medical school,” she says, with a laugh. As an assistant general manager for the Leafs, Wickenheiser oversees 11 staff members and is responsible for the development of not only the franchise players, but of prospects and players from the Toronto Marlies and affiliate Newfoundland Growlers. “My job is to make sure it’s a high-functioning department where we’re helping the players both on and off the ice to maximize their potential and get them prepared to be successful NHL players. If they already are a successful NHL player, then help them find that one per cent here and there that can elevate their game,” she says.
Her workday varies depending on her clinical responsibilities, but in general, she wakes up early and heads to the rink for a workout or because of her duties with the Leafs. If she is doing a family medicine rotation, then she will work an afternoon or evening clinic. If she is doing a hospital-based shift that runs from 8 a.m. until late afternoon, then she will adapt her schedule accordingly.
Wickenheiser says the parallels between sport and medicine are striking. “Everything I learned in hockey, I use every day,” says the four-time Olympic gold medallist. “Medicine is a team game. You’ve got to think on your feet. You’ve got to handle stress. You’ve got to be physically at your best.” She also says that using constructive criticism to enhance performance is another common theme. “In medicine, you’re being told what you need to improve on all the time. Being able to handle that in a productive way is very important to your development as a physician.”
One big difference between these two worlds, however, has to do with self-care and wellness. “As an athlete, you’re celebrated for taking care of your body. In medicine, sometimes it feels like that should be the last thing you should be doing as a physician taking care of everyone else. I think it’s counter intuitive. It’s something I think medicine has to get a lot better at,” she says.
When asked what motivates her to stay on this difficult path, Wickenheiser, who grew up on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, says hard work is part of her identity. “I don’t think of myself as overly smart or special in any way, but one thing I hang my hat on as an athlete and what I do in medicine, is that I’m confident I can outwork just about anyone. It’s the one thing I know I can control in my life even when there are other things happening that I can’t. You can always control your effort.”