After spending 20 years in the Yukon healing people, Xiu-Mei Zhang is still considered a foreign doctor.
So, after her special licence expired in April, she decided to move on. She started working in the Northwest Territories.
The territory has lost a respected doctor, and her patients are furious.
They have delivered a letter and petition – with more than 160 signatures – to the territory’s top politicians demanding answers about new regulations that forced Zhang to leave.
“We are not interested in political stuff,” said Richard Li. “But, sadly, in order to bring this to the attention of people who can make the change, we have to go through the political channels. We don’t want to be used as a political weapon … but it is the government who set up the policy.
“It’s a discriminating regulation.”
Zhang practised eastern medicine when she first arrived in the territory, but added western medicine to her practice in 2005, after the territory brought in the special licensing program.
It was designed to lure international medical graduates to alleviate the territory’s doctor shortage. It allows foreign doctors to work five years in the territory, but they must successfully complete a two-day College of Family Physicians of Canada exam to keep working after that.
No one ever told Zhang she had to complete this exam, she said.
In 2006, the territory suggested Zhang attend the Western Alliance for Assessment of International Physicians at the University of Alberta. It was a Health Canada program to help the doctor shortage in Western Canada by making sure foreign doctors are “practice ready.”
Zhang passed with flying colours.
“I was the only one in Yukon, and YTG was very happy for me at that time,” she said. “And I was told, ‘You are practice standard, same like Canadian graduates.’ So I thought I am finished all this foreign business because I have been assessed by a Canadian medical university.
“I thought I was a part of mainstream community.”
But after another four years of practising in the territory, the Yukon Medical Council sent her a letter, telling her it was her last chance to take the national college’s test.
There was not enough time to study or prepare and Zhang failed the two-day exam, she said.
The council extended her licence so she could take the test again.
This time she was prepared.
But three days before the exam, her mother passed away.
“My heart was torn apart,” she said. “My mom was the only parent we had. All my family decided I should stay to finish the exam. They think that’s what my mom wanted for me, although she couldn’t speak. But right after the exam, I knew I didn’t pass.
“I tried so much and I just feel my life is being controlled by this exam – which is not required in other places. Coming back to Whitehorse is almost no fun.”
The point isn’t whether she passed or failed, but why she has to take the test at all, said Li.
“Why is it required for foreign doctors who have been practising in this area for, like, five years with a proven track record?” he said. “(Foreign doctors who are) being recognized with such a high quality of service in the community, being respected, not only from their medical knowledge but also as a person.”
“The doctors who graduate from Canadian universities don’t have to take examinations again and again and again,” said Daishu Zuo, another of Zhang’s former patients. She, too, had to undergo rigorous testing when coming to Canada to continue her work as a pharmacist.
“I am not sure Canadian doctors and doctors from other countries get the same treatment,” she said.
The national college’s exam is not mandatory for all doctors in Canada. It is stipulated by region, which is why Zhang has been welcomed in the Northwest Territories.
Being spurned by the Yukon medical establishment is a hard blow for Zhang, who graduated from the Norman Bethune University in northeast China, which is named after the famous Canadian physician who harmonized eastern and western medicine in China.
Her decision to move here was influenced by Bethune. She wanted to bring her culture to Canada, she said.
“I feel I have a responsibility to share my knowledge,” she said, mentioning the healing, mind-body connection that eastern medicine is based on.
“These are special skills the Yukon government is sending away,” said Zuo.
“Xiu-Mei has been humiliated,” said Li, sitting across from her in her family’s living room.
Zhang and her husband designed and built their home in 2007. With its circular archways and dark, ebony wood, it is unlike other Whitehorse homes.
“We were planning on living here forever,” said Zhang. “For our children, our grandchildren. Now everything has changed.”
The words make Kim Dinh, who is sitting beside Zhang, wince.
“If you’re a Canadian doctor and you come to Vietnam, you work normally,” said Dinh. “Why we respect you and you don’t respect us? It’s unfair.
“Any citizen of Yukon or Western Canada should be the same. Do you think the Northwest Territories are a lower class?
“We come here, we offer our life for Yukon. We work, we pay taxes, so we need good treatment when it comes to health care.
“When Xiu-Mei go, we are the one who lost. Who’s going to take care of us?”
Having a family doctor, especially one who knows Asian medicine and languages, is irreplaceable, said Dinh.
When she moved to the Yukon from Vietnam, the change in climate and humidity caused severe nosebleeds.
No one could stop the blood from flowing, except Zhang, said Dinh.
The task of explaining symptoms to a doctor can be a challenge even when language is not.
“We can’t tell doctors what is happening in our bodies,” she said. “And we can’t understand what the doctors say.”
If it weren’t for Zhang, Li’s four-year-old daughter may not be alive.
Zhang diagnosed the girl and contacted the BC children’s hospital quickly enough to keep her alive, he said.
“She spent three days in the ICU.”
“It was Kawasaki disease,” Zhang interjected.
The community Zhang is leaving behind is not just Asian.
One Caucasian Canadian man arrived before Zuo had opened her store in the Horwood’s Mall this week.
“He came back again later just to sign the petition,” she said, nodding her head repeatedly.
“It’s a ripple effect that will start to affect everyone in this community,” said Li. “We can’t find a doctor. The people who signed that petition also can’t find a doctor. Xiu-Mei is not the only example. There’s a bigger impact here.
“To me, this is a quick fix. By removing this exam requirement, you don’t need to spend any money. It’s just a policy change. It’s a quick fix for the doctor shortage. And it would bring a benefit back to the community immediately.”
The petition is expected to grow, and it’s available at Daishu’s Jewelry and Gift, said Li.
“It’s not in our culture to be loud,” said Zhang.
She has started to accept living her life split between work in the Northwest Territories and her husband and two sons in the Yukon.
She was impressed when her past patients came to her, asking if they could speak out.
“It’s really warming,” she said. “all my patients’ support.”
But Zhang is ready to move on to a system that embraces her, she said.
“I am needed there and it is rewarding work,” she said. “My heart is torn apart. It’s not the community – it has given me so much love and support. It’s my profession’s regulatory system.
“I have been here 20 years. This is my community, my home. But now, coming back from NWT, it’s a different feeling.”
“We can see she’s happier and feeling more rewarded and valued in the NWT,” said Zuo.
The NWT is not far from here and we’re upset that we can’t have the same benefit, said Li.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at