Alumni reflect on time spent on the front lines and UNBC

Magazine Fall 2020

UNBC alumni Jennifer Nguyen and Dr. Geoff Johnson share their stories on the health-care front lines during COVID-19 in a Q&A with This Is UNBC.

December 10, 2020
A selfie of Jennifer Nguyen and Dr. Geoff Johnson in a hospital setting
UNBC graduates Jennifer Nguyen and Dr. Geoff Johnson met while completing their master's degrees in Community Health Sciences. The couple now live and work in the Lower Mainland.

Jennifer Nguyen and her husband Dr. Geoff Johnson are just two UNBC alumni who are serving on the healthcare front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They met at UNBC in 2009 while pursuing their master’s degrees in Community Health Sciences.  

Nguyen is now a midwife at both B.C. Women’s Hospital and Burnaby General Hospital. Johnson is doing his maternal fetal medicine rotation at B.C. Women’s Hospital and will then once again serve as the Chief Obstetrics Gynaecology OBGYN resident at BCWH. He also graduated from the Northern Medical Program in 2016. 

They have both adapted their practices that follow COVID-19 safety protocols.  

Nguyen says her practice’s homebirth numbers have skyrocketed and early discharge from the hospital is possible with midwives as they do a lot of follow-up and postpartum/newborn care at home.  

Johnson is working hard with his fellow residents to overall manage how they work in the hospital to minimize exposure to both their patients and themselves.  

Nguyen and Johnson took time out of their busy schedules to answer some questions about their time at UNBC and their careers.  

Jennifer Nguyen 

Question: What inspired you to pursue an education in health sciences? 

Answer: I was finishing up an undergraduate degree in Biology and knew that I wanted to have a career in health care. Growing up I wasn’t well versed in the different careers in health care so focused my attention on medicine. However, I wanted to have a better background in health policy and research to understand the different factors and social determinants of health that would affect consumers being able to access health care as well as the practitioners providing it. This is what led me to pursue the MSc in Community Health Sciences.  

Q: Why did you attend UNBC? 

A: My friend showed me the program description. Coming from Nova Scotia, I had little knowledge about the different universities in the West and I had never heard of UNBC before this. But the program description for MSc Community Health Sciences was so intriguing, that I needed to apply. When I was offered a spot in the program, I accepted right away without knowing anything about Prince George. I Googled Prince George and saw that it was a small city in what I felt like the middle of nowhere, northern B.C. I thought to myself, “what have I done??” It turned out to be the best decision of my life.  

Q: What did you love about it? 

A: Firstly, the story of how UNBC came to be is such a heart-warming community-led initiative. It really is about a people coming together to make things happen. My time at UNBC was filled with so many wonderful people and a community of friends that I still connect with on a regular basis. I was able to be involved at UNBC as a student, a leader, a teacher, and as staff. When I think about my time in Prince George, I can say with confidence that some of the best years of my life were spent there.  

Q: What attracted you to a career in midwifery? 

A: Before I moved to B.C., I thought of midwives in all the stereotypical ways you can imagine. I knew nothing about it. It wasn’t until my master’s research working with Indigenous women sharing their stories of accessing health care that I learned of the disparities that rural and remote women face when it comes to maternity care. After doing more research into the profession, midwifery seemed like the best avenue for me to help address these barriers and inequities. Canadian midwifery as we know it today came into existence out of a grass-roots consumer-led initiative to provide birthers with more autonomy, empowerment, and choice over their care. I think that’s pretty powerful and am so privileged and honoured to be able to be a part of that.  

Q: Any advice you can share for current UNBC health sciences students? 

A: The health-care system is not perfect. There are many issues of systemic racism, oppression, and discrimination. The most important thing I did during my degree was to get involved in the community and listen to the elders and the community members talk about their stories of injustice and follow their lead to find solutions. This fuelled me in my master’s research and as a midwife to advocate for change.  

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years? 

A: I came back to B.C. after studying midwifery in Ontario to work in Vancouver at an urban practice that prides ourselves in supporting our client’s birthing choices. In Vancouver, we also have a large Chinese and Vietnamese population that I have been very privileged to be able to service in Mandarin and Vietnamese. As a child of refugees, this has been a personal goal of mine as midwifery in Canada is a predominantly white and privileged profession that is not representative of the populations that we serve.  

To be able to provide culturally safe care for these clients in their native language is an honour, and something my own mother did not have when she first came to Canada. Another personal goal of mine is to serve the rural and remote women who were the ones that first sparked my interest in this profession and the reason I went into midwifery. Perhaps the next five years will lead me back to them.  

Q: How long have you worked at BC Women’s and Burnaby General? 

A: Four years (I graduated in 2016).  

2020 is the World Health Organization’s Year of the Nurse and Midwife. Nguyen was recently in a documentary about her work with the South Sudanese Peer To Peer Mentorship program. The Canadian Association of Midwives profiled two Canadian midwives (of which she is one) and two South Sudanese midwives. There is also a shorter film about midwifery in B.C. that was done as a side project to this documentary.

Dr. Geoff Johnson 

Question: What inspired you to pursue a career in medicine? 

Answer: My master’s research was focused on health care access on First Nations’ reserves. Two of the greatest barriers to health care are physical location of services and lack of access to culturally appropriate health care. My desire to do something useful for my community combined with my experience growing up in Nuu-chah-nulth territory on Vancouver Island, led me to consider becoming a physician so that I could help bring culturally appropriate care back to my community. 

Ultimately, I decided to become an OBGYN. I found the medical and surgical aspects of the field intellectually stimulating, but more importantly, I felt it was the area in which I could make the biggest difference. Many women are living with very treatable conditions but are afraid to access health care for multiple socio-cultural reasons. This barrier is further compounded for many women who are marginalized by our society. My hope is that I can provide a safe space for First Nation’s women to access health care. 

Q: What is your favourite NMP memory? 

A: Skinning a moose on the side of a logging road! On the drive out to a remote clinic with Dr. John Pawlovich, a couple of men had just shot a moose but forgot their skinning knife at home. Of course, I never leave home without my trusty pocketknife, so we made fast friends and helped them to skin, quarter and load the moose into their truck. That night after clinic we were feasting on fresh moose tenderloin! 

Q: Any advice you can share for current NMP students? 

A: Take time to enjoy the North! You have a very unique opportunity to get out and explore some truly amazing country. Just as important, take time to get to know your patients and your colleagues. It is truly a privilege to be involved in their lives and if you are lucky, they may share with you some of the most incredible stories you will ever hear. Finally, don’t forget about your families and friends. Medical school and residency are a long challenging road, you will need the support of those that you love. 

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years? 

A: My plan at this point is to make my way back to a rural community to practice as a general OBGYN. I am very fortunate to have trained in the NMP, which cultivates an appreciation for rural medicine.  

Q: What is your favourite activity(s) to relax outside work? 

A: My favourite activity is spending time with my wife and son. I also enjoy anything outdoors! Fishing, hunting, hiking, mushroom picking, and camping are all at the top of my list. As my residency is in Vancouver, it’s hard to get out of the urban jungle so I’ve taken up fishing for sturgeon in the Fraser River!