'Life on The Ground Floor' Is All About Caring

K.J. Mullins interviews Taylor Prize Finalist James Maskalyk

By K.J. Mullins

The first thing you notice about author James Maskalyk is how comforting his voice is. That voice is one that many people hear at during their hardest hours. When not writing Maskalyk is an Emergency Room doctor in Toronto and Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where he has helped to train the 25 emergency doctors that treat people in that country.

James Maskalyk photo by George Socka

Maskalyk's latest award-winning book Life on The Ground Floor was recently shortlisted for this year’s RBC Taylor Prize. The doctor takes readers through the A, B, Cs of emergency medicine in both a modern hospital and one where doctors have to deal with broken equipment while repairing hearts and limbs. During the brief moments of downtime, Maskalyk is with his beloved grandfather, a true man's man. Living in a trapper's cabin in Alberta the older man's last years are thoughtfully archived by his grandson. Like a literary canvas, those times bring the reader a full picture of how even the doctor has to deal with the emotional pain of a loved one as their health fails. In each location, there is a deeper spiritual journey being taken, along with the understanding of the overall importance of the role that emergency medicine plays in our health care system.
Don't expect a detailed timeline when reading Maskalyk's book. Just like the hectic pace of a busy ER 'Life on The Ground Floor' goes all over the place in rapid time. It makes for a fascinating read, one that will have you cheering for the good doctor time and again.
As we talked during a phone interview it's clear that the passion for medicine that leaps from the pages of Maskalyk's book is his own truth. He is the doctor who you want treating a loved one in a time of crisis. He believes that the most important aspect of training doctors whether it be in Ethiopia or Canada is "showing that true caring of our patients is welcoming." Being welcoming is not always easy and let's be clear Maskalyk is a good man but he's not a saint.
Working the ER can be frustrating, there are patients who test every boundary known to men and even the kindest person among us will snap at times. Perhaps that is the most important lesson from his book, that the doctors that treat us are human beings, who have hidden emotions. The Toronto hospital that Maskalyk works at is a mecca for the homeless. Some will enter to find a brief moment of warmth from the harsh life they are dealing with. While some are satisfied to get a sandwich or drink before heading back to the street some are not on their best behaviour. Maskalyk likens them and others who act out in his hospital as “children in a grown person's body.” For the doctor that means having to be parent-like and firm while still preserving their dignity. “They just want to see to a measure of their true worth by seeing what they can get away with.”

Maskalyk's wish for Ethiopia and that region is that it needs to "remain peaceful." In a nation that has fewer doctors than the average Canadian urban hospital employees peace is something that has to be held onto for the sake of the people. As a doctor, Maskalyk hopes that the nation continues to "hold the ER as a treasure and to continue to support the graduates so that they can have lifelong careers in the field. So they will be able to inform medical innovations around the world." In this modern world, Maskalyk knows that those that are challenged to work with the bare minimum can bring new ideas that can help doctors even in the most advanced hospital settings.
Here in Canada Maskalyk believes that people are appreciative of our health care system although he joked that he doesn't like mentioned his job at dinner parties. "I always hear the horror stories of health care and how long they had to wait to be seen. Most people don't know how much they appreciate what we have here until a crisis comes."
As we closed the interview Maskalyk confided that “my only job is to care for my patients as if they were a family member, with understanding and compassion.” It's a job that the good doctor does at the highest level.
The RBC Taylor Prize winner will be revealed at a gala luncheon on Monday, February 26, 2018.


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