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McGill Reporter
April 19, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 15
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Kaleidoscope

Anna-Maria Henderson: Ready for anything

Photo PHOTO: Owen Egan

When Anna-Maria Henderson was first sent to see Dr. Seang Tan in 1996 for a job interview, she was warned that he was a tough guy to impress.

The newly arrived chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Tan wasn't going to hire just anybody to be his department's administrative officer. He interviewed Henderson three times for the job, grilling her for two hours on one occasion. He introduced her to division directors and staff members and challenged her to summarize their views about the department and their hopes for its future.

What Tan didn't know at the onset was that he had met his match. While other job applicants might have been sent scurrying, Henderson was delighted to nab the position. And she has been busy impressing him ever since.

So much so, that he nominated her for the Anne McCormick Award for Excellence in the Faculty of Medicine, a prize that annually recognizes a member of the faculty's administrative and support staff for performance above and beyond the call of duty.

Henderson is Tan's administrative right-hand woman. Under his direction, she plans and oversees the department's budget, organizes space allocations for department members, keeps track of the department's computer server, recruits and supervises support staff and coordinates academic appointments and promotions.

"Once I've given her a task, I know I don't have to worry about it ever again," says Tan.

Since 1997, Henderson has been juggling a second job, as the clinic manager for the McGill Reproductive Centre.

In that role, she has been a driving force in making the centre, which deals with hundreds of couples each year experiencing difficulties in their quest to become parents, a much more patient-friendly place.

Henderson surveyed the centre's patients about their experiences. "I wanted to find out what they were happy with and what they weren't happy with."

It turns out the patients didn't like having to buy fertility drugs elsewhere because they "wanted their privacy" and they complained of being bored in the waiting area when their doctors were running late.

Henderson lobbied for some changes. Computers with Internet access were installed in the waiting area and an on-site pharmacy was created.

She is also sensitive to patients' needs away from the centre. Sensing that many of them felt awkward talking to friends or relatives about their yearning to have children and the difficulties they face in making that happen, Henderson created a support group for which she was given a public service award from the Infertility Awareness Association of Canada.

Having trouble conceiving "is such a private thing, but people still need somebody to talk to, other people who know what it's like."

You wouldn't guess it from looking at her, but the remarkably youthful Henderson, the mother of two teenage daughters, has been working at McGill since 1977.

After earning a secretarial diploma in 1975, and doing a two-year stint as a secretary at the Montreal Stock Exchange, Henderson arrived at McGill, becoming secretary to the Dean of Engineering. She went on to become the administrative secretary for the Department of Italian Studies and the assistant to the chair of the Department of Oncology before taking on her current role.

"One of the nicest things about working at McGill is that you can really move around," says Henderson. "Every five or six years I seem to need a change. When I feel there aren't any more challenges [in a job], it's time to move on."

Tan hasn't been shy about giving Henderson challenges that most administrative officers don't face. "Her job over the past few years has expanded beyond the traditional confines of an administrative position."

Henderson has given public presentations about her centre's offerings at conferences, done media interviews about the centre with the likes of CTV News and Radio-Canada and even collaborated on a research project.

That project stemmed from a casual conversation Henderson had with some of the physicians after the centre had recently cut down on its previously high rate of triplets among patients receiving fertility treatments. "Triplets are viewed as a failure, because the goal is a normal pregnancy and normal pregnancies involve one baby," Henderson explains.

Some doctors bemoaned the fact that the rates for twins were still high, but Henderson's intuition was that many patients wouldn't mind having twins. Fertility treatments can be a lengthy, nerve-wracking and expensive process. She suspected many parents would happily have two kids at once.

The doctors decided to test her hypothesis and enlisted her as a co-investigator. Turns out she was right; most of the parents being treated at the centre would opt for twins if given the choice. The resulting paper won first prize at the 46th annual meeting of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society.

"I've never been one to shy away from challenges," says Henderson of some of her more unusual undertakings.

"My philosophy is 'Let me try. If I screw up, I screw up. Just give me the chance.'"

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I wandered in, sat down, read these. They blew me away. They haven't lost that impact on me.

Medicine professor Dr. L. John Hoffer, recounting to The Globe and Mail his experience as a pre-med student finding some of the papers of the late Nobel Laureate and vitamin C proponent Linus Pauling on his father's desk. Hoffer is involved in research on the vitamin's use in cancer treatments.

Paging the GP. Any GP

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At a time when many are suggesting that family practitioners should play a greater role in the health care system (see the Clair Commission article), concerns are developing that not enough medical students are opting for careers in family medicine.

Figures emerging from last month's "match day," the day on which medical students find out which residency programs they have been accepted into, turned up some disturbing results. Nineteen percent of the 476 openings in family medicine went unfilled.

Most of those slots will be filled in a subsequent matching round by foreign medical graduates, but the executive director of the Canadian Resident Matching Service says the unfilled spots point to serious problems within the once popular specialty. "Students appear to be voting with their feet," says Sandy Banner.

At McGill, the numbers are holding steady, says family medicine professor Pierre Tellier, but he agrees that something is going wrong across the country. "A number of us have sent grant applications in to get funding to look into this."

One factor, says Tellier, is that, intentionally or not, the field doesn't always garner much respect from medical schools. "A case study might say: 'A patient's GP hasn't been able to figure out what's wrong, so he's been referred to the fabulous specialist who will solve all the problems.'" While Tellier's example is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he does believe that "the message that often gets out is that family medicine is second-rate."

Dr. Paul Rainsberry, director of education with the College of Family Physicians of Canada, concurs. He worries that many medical professors steer students toward supposedly more glamorous specialties. "Why be a family doctor when you're so good?" goes the attitude.

Sources include eCMAJ news desk

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The biggest obstacle is the workplace. Employers wrongly believe that having children is an individual responsibility.

Social work professor Germain Dulac in an article in La Presse on how fathers at work don't ask for time off when their responsibilities as parents ought to make it necessary.

My favourite Martian ... web site

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Recently voted by the Internet magazine Internaute's "20 Best Web sites" as the best North American web site -- beating out the National Geographic web site -- "Objectif Mars," or "Destination Mars," is an easy-to-use, graphically attractive and information-rich web site all about the red planet -- and it was developed here in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in collaboration with the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications.

It includes a glossary of Martian and planetary terms that's accessible from any of the web site's 12 chapters, which include water, Martians, volcanoes and Little Green Men. It even has the odd game such as matching up the right planets to the right signs of the zodiac. But, while the content is engaging, it's never gimmicky. In fact, all the research is straight from the scientific journals, reassures Pierre Hudon, who, while a doctoral student in Earth and Planetary Studies, undertook the job of researching the Martian content, a task that took him five months.

"Those that popularize information on the planets frequently take their information from news outlets, like CNN and the like," says Hudon, now a postdoctoral fellow in igneous petrology at the Université de Montréal. "Ours is real popularization, not scientific reporting." So, when you click on the icon for Life on Mars, you get the truthful answer that scientists don't know for sure, but there's the possibility that bacteria live in frozen water deep below the surface of the red planet.

One of the goals of creating this web site was to demystify planetology. "We wanted to publicize McGill's program and publicize the fact that you don't need to be an astronaut to do astroresearch. To geologists, for instance, Mars is just another planet made of rock."

Receiving 300 visits a day in both languages, the site, which is well used by francophone countries, says Hudon, is great for anyone wanting to brush up on their knowledge of the next hip planet. "Mars," says Hudon, "in the coming 10 years will be 'in' like the moon was in the beginning of the '70s. In approximately 2013, we'll have the first man on Mars." Hit mars.bw.qc.ca/ for an hour-long tour or simply go to the Earth and Planetary Sciences web site and click on the Destination Mars icon.

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