This past August our Valley lost an important and beloved figure when, with little warning, Dr. Greg Geukjian died of pancreatic cancer. Dr. Geukjian took care of thousands of Valley residents over the 44 years he practised at the Barrie Memorial Hospital and the Ormstown Medical Centre, but few of those patients knew to what extent he kept the Centre happy and functional and also attracted new doctors to our area, especially since 2005 when he became the region’s coordinator for the McGill Family Medicine Residency program.
Setrak Krikor Geukjian (later known as ‘Greg’) was born in 1948 in Beirut of Armenian parents who had fled to Lebanon from Cilicia, an ancient Armenian homeland that became part of Turkey. When he was 17, after his father died and two of his elder brothers had emigrated to Canada, the rest of the family followed
He was always good in math and sciences and soon was studying medicine at McGill University. There he met his wife, Nadia Miloradovitch, in biochemistry class. Nadia was born into a Russian family who had fled to Austria and France during the Russian revolution and then came to Canada. The two married in 1975, right before Greg came to spend an experimental year at the Barrie Memorial Hospital and fell in love with rural practice.
In 1979 they bought their beautiful house near the Ormstown fairgrounds; when their first daughter, Tamara, was born, Nadia left her job at Air Canada. She says that with Greg’s hard hours every day, being on call in the middle of the night, “I felt the best way I could make my own contribution to the community was to make sure Greg had a welcoming retreat always ready for him to recharge; he came home every day for lunch.”
Dr. Vince Blonde, Greg’s colleague for the past 40 years and best friend, as he puts it, “at work and anywhere,” echoes Nadia’s assessment of Dr. Geukjian’s love of working in this Valley. In 2012 he received the College of Family Physicians of Canada’s Quebec award for best patient care “in a non-urban region,” a moment of recognition that made Dr. Geukjian very happy. Dr. Blonde says, “Greg got that award because his work exemplified what a family physician is supposed to be. He knew his patients before and after their illnesses, he knew their families. He made sure the patients were involved in their care and in all decisions, so treatment coordinated with their lives.”
Dr. Michel Raymond was another recruit to the Valley by Dr. Geukjian, arriving in 2007. He says, “Since Greg was head of the residents’ training program he was the person I met on my first day. He introduced me to everybody — even made sure I went to the kitchen to meet the servers! He was very fatherly. What’s great about practising in the Valley is that the hospital is small. The atmosphere was so different: warm and familial, its own community. I was struck by the way one patient would visit others because they were likely to know other people on their floor. I liked that close contact and humanity of the care.”
Why it’s been so hard to recruit enough family doctors to practise here neither doctor can fully explain, only that it may become even harder without Dr. Geukjian’s diplomatic and energetic efforts. Nadia explains that she helped with recruitment, entertaining residents living in a house across from the hospital with dinners and parties, which Greg, a gourmet cook, loved to throw. He was a self-taught musician, playing jazz on the drums and piano, flamenco on the guitar, complete with a Leonard Cohen hat. Dr. Blonde says, “he always kept in contact to make sure we were enjoying ourselves at work, but he was very humble … he was open minded to learning and tried to foster that.” Nadia says, “So many times his residents would tell me they felt supported, not constantly criticized and torn apart in top-down evaluations.”
He treated his patients the same way, as partners in the ongoing struggle to regain or maintain health. Those of us who went to Dr. Geukjian can attest that we never felt either under- or over-treated, never ignored in our desires to explore one methodology or avoid another. He presented and received options with a great feeling of equality.
His final acts were two letters that attempted to protect his patients from being orphaned in the system, the last one coming to us after his death. Nadia says, “He couldn’t rest until the letters were written. He made sure his most vulnerable patients were taken care of and can go to the weekly clinic.”
Besides all the musical soirées and dinner parties, the Geukjians travelled extensively and, as Nadia says, “had a wonderful marriage and family.” They have three children, daughters Tamara and Katrina and son Sasha, a teacher at Châteauguay Valley Regional High School. “The love of his life,” Nadia says, was his five-year-old granddaughter, Katie.
They were all with him during his illness when he was at home. When he became too ill, he wanted to spend his last days in his beloved Barrie Memorial Hospital. Nadia says, “Every day, his room was full of doctors, nurses and other colleagues. He really became … (she laughs a little) … a kind of a wise man, talking about what’s really important in life. It was amazing how serenely he spoke about everything. He was at peace, and talked about how everyone goes through that door.”
Not all of us were so serene. A young resident texted, “I would have done anything to take his place.” A patient expressing his shock and grief to one of the staff at the Med Centre was quoted as saying: “The world would seem a lot more just, and make more sense, if it was me who got sick, not him.”
A lot of us feel that way, and realize we will surely get no better care, however long we may live. The loss to the Valley reverberates on thousands of people, on personal, community and professional levels. We only hope Dr. Geukjian knew how much we appreciated and loved him; according to Nadia, he did.