Some folk have all the luck. And others have guts, determination, talent, and a backbone for hard work and committed service. Filipino-Canadian Dr. Anna Wolak is a shining example of the latter.
She decided to relocate to Canada while completing her Medical Residency in Adelaide, Australia, to follow her parents and brothers who had already made the move to the Great White North. Anna’s decision to join her family came in 2007, and with a rather hefty price tag. The move meant starting over again in yet another country (having already moved in 1999, from the Philippines to Australia.) And starting over meant work: Anna had to get her medical education and residency experience accredited by the British Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. She also had to pass a set of national exams governed by the Medical Council of Canada.
Perseverance prevailed, and within the first year of her move, Anna accomplished what was required of her to become a Licentiate of the Medical Council of Canada. Seven years later, she is now in the thick of a flourishing practice and career, with the opportunity to be a voice to her community. She enjoys a happy home life, and has recently made it on the list of the Top 75 Finalists of the Royal Bank of Canada’s Top 25 Immigrants Awards.
This doctor is most definitely IN.
Small towns and 8-foot snow banks
Anna recalls her early days as a doctor setting up practice in Canada, and it seems reminiscent of the settler or pioneer spirit: “As an immigrant physician, I could not just open up a practice anywhere I chose. I had to move to an area of need in rural BC during my first year. I had my medical practice in the Canadian desert town of Osoyoos and also worked as an emergency physician at the regional hospital in Oliver, BC.”
One of the biggest challenges she faced as a new immigrant to Canada, by her recollection, was the bitter winter cold; especially in a town like Osoyoos.
“The first winter I was here was one of the coldest winters in BC, and it was very bad in Osoyoos. The snow banks had reached 8 feet tall while the temperature fell to minus 28 degrees Celsius during the day! I still struggle with the snow, especially if I have to drive in it,” she declared.
Later on, however, she moved to Vancouver, where she found herself closer to her family and then fiancé (now husband) and – thankfully – further away from 8-foot banks of snow.
She has stayed in Vancouver ever since, first practicing in Kitsilano, then at Fraser Street Medical, where her family medical practice has been thriving.
A tinge of homesickness
Aside from the ongoing occasional struggle with snow, Anna candidly admits to missing her peers back home, as well as a sticky flour dessert her grandma used to make.
“It’s also hard being away from those with whom I grew up, like my cousins and my high school barkada. Social media makes contact easier, but it just isn’t the same as being there. I also haven’t been able to find really good sapin-sapin, the kind my Lola used to make,” she shared.
Anna counteracts this tinge of homesickness by activating what she calls her “kababayan radar” whenever possible. She keeps an ear out for fellow-Filipinos at the mall, for instance, enjoying the reaction she gets when their mutual Pinoy-ness is discovered: “I enjoy hearing bits of Tagalog slipped into conversation to test to see if I’m Pinoy and then seeing the sheer joy in the response when I answer them in Tagalog. ’Ay, Pilipina din po kayo!’ (Oh! So you’re Filipino, too!) It always brings a smile to my face.”
This kinship with country folk extends to her practice, Anna shares. “Similarly, whenever new patients join my practice and I realize they’re Filipino, I always make sure they know that we can hold the medical consultation in Tagalog. It usually makes them happy to know we’re all kapwang Pinoy (fellow Filipinos), going through a common immigrant experience,” she said.
The good doctor has also discovered a rather unexpected source of battling the blues for home: the public library. “I got very excited when I realized that the Vancouver Public Library has a Filipiniana section in a lot of their branches and that I would be able to borrow books and DVDs to catch up on the latest telenovela or reminisce about my childhood with Hiraya Manawari,” she enthused.
Beyond duty’s call
Apart from the moments of missing the land of her birth, a condition shared by most who immigrate to another country, Anna has adjusted well to life in Canada and has since become a voice to her community.
“I am passionate about Public Health and have given preventative health lectures to the public, including lectures on childhood inoculations emphasizing adherence to established schedules and also advocating health promotion for women,” she said.
While she was in Australia, she actively championed projects with Public Health units for Men’s Health, and volunteered for organizations that raised money for teenage cancer research, as well as learned hands-on how to care for children suffering from cancer.
In Vancouver, she continues to go above and beyond the call of duty and extends her services outside the confines of her medical practice.
She developed the medical component of a prenatal course that is taught in a Vancouver community center, serves on the advisory community of a children’s book club (“because I know how important reading is for young children,” she says), and sits on the parent council of her son’s preschool.
As can be expected from someone with her degree of passion, Anna eagerly lent a hand in the aftermath of November 2013’s devastating Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda, to Philippine locals.)
“After Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) hit the Philippines in 2013, I decided I could not stand idly by in light of the devastation. I first made a donation to the medical mission that was put on by my high school batch mates, but I needed to do more. So a friend and I organized a raffle as a fundraiser which raised over USD$7,000 that went directly to the Haiyan Relief Efforts of both Doctors Without Borders and the Canadian Red Cross,” she recounted.
A pleasant surprise
Anna’s commitment to her profession and her calling as a doctor has not gone unnoticed. She was recently nominated for the Royal Bank of Canada’s Top 25 Immigrants Awards, and has – in fact – already been selected as one of the Top 75 finalists, among hundreds of initial nominees.
“I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only had I been nominated for this award but was selected based on merit from among 630 nominees across Canada by a distinguished panel of judges to join the ranks of the Top 75 finalists,” she shared.
Her efforts for the furtherance of medical practice and for the continuing education of its practitioners are definitely worthy of recognition. Anna details her stalwart commitment to this cause: “Alongside treating patients in my family practice at Fraser Street Medical in Vancouver, I had become very involved in organizing, planning and presenting programs for the professional development of family physicians. I currently chair the planning committee for the Annual Post Graduate Review in Family Medicine, run by both the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver General Hospital. I also serve on the planning committee for the nationally award-winning UBC conference, ‘CME on the Run!’ that educates family practitioners throughout the province. As well, I serve on the planning committees for the Vancouver Division of Family Practice’s Primary Maternity Care CME Task Force.”
As if all these were not enough, she has likewise been approached by the General Practice Services Committee Practice Support Program to be a facilitator for Chronic Pain sessions, “which offers focused training sessions for physicians to help improve practice efficiency and support enhanced delivery of patient care.”
“Since continuing medical education is so important to keeping physicians’ knowledge current, it is an honour for me to be involved in this role. I was so pleasantly surprised when I learned that the Awards selection committee chose to recognize its importance. Now it is up to the general public to vote for the Top 25, if they agree,” she added.
The doctor as woman, wife and mother
With all that Anna has taken on, one can only wonder how she finds time for herself and her family. Yet Anna is not only a committed doctor, but also a dedicated wife and mother.
In fact, her advice to others is to “work hard but maintain your work-life balance. Decide what is important in your life, look after your family and your health, and then make sure your work does not take away from those elements. Be the best you can be in your work, but not to the detriment of what is truly important to you.”
Outside of work, Anna loves spending most of her free time with her family: her husband, Arthur, and their almost-3-year-old son, Jacob, who she refers to as their “pride and joy.” She gushes that Jacob “will also become a kuya (big brother) in the summer, so I look forward to watching my family grow.”
An avid fan of the theatre, perhaps one little-known fact about Anna is that she spent over a decade with Repertory Philippines summer enrichment programs, performing in dozens of Broadway and Filipino productions. Her love of music lives on and she admits that she enjoys “listening to and singing along with musical soundtracks.”
A voracious reader, she cites The Last Time I Saw Mother, by Chinese-Filipino author Arlene J. Chai; Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, a compilation of complex neurological cases replete with medical mystery and shared humanity; and the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery, well-loved from Anna’s childhood, as her favorite books.
“Currently, however, my reading consists primarily of medical journals, parenting books and children’s literature, like Winnie the Pooh,” she lightheartedly added.
The mission behind the medicine
What moves Anna’s heart? Beyond the mere medical side of it, there lies a mission; one that is etched deeply into the core of her being, enabling her to do great and even greater things. It is the key behind every successful – and happily so – person: a genuine love for what you do. And along with this passion for what you do, the knowledge of why you do it.
“I love my profession. As a family physician, I look after the health of the entire family. It is their stories that move me. When I do a baby developmental check, I share in the joy of the first smile. I love hearing about my patients’ achievements. There is great satisfaction in determining an accurate diagnosis and developing a treatment plan. This is why I chose family practice. . I focus on medicine, but I also get to know my patients as people.”
This heart is what drives the hard work. It – apart from Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar – is likely also what “makes the medicine go down, in a most delightful way.” And I can almost hear Anna singing that.