From Produce to Polyps: Living the Dream

Written by: Mike Steel, MD
The Steel family unit: Michelle, Skookum, Churro and yours truly
An aspiring Gastrointestinal Pathologist might not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering the various career opportunities for a Vancouver Island-born individual from a small community. The decision to go the route of Pathology in my medical training, much like the most inspiring Pathologists I’ve come across in my limited years, was fueled by a ceaseless curiosity of biologic systems and their oddities as manifestations of universal phenomena. I’ve had a fairly clear understanding of that level of curiosity’s existence in me from a young age, but even early in life, I often wondered if being from a small town with a modest family income might impair the ability to ask the questions that I had for the world’s ever evolving scientific community.
I’ve always loved where I’m from; Langford, British Columbia is home to my family and some of my closest friends, and living a local life while working for a Victoria-based grocery store was something that I considered strongly for a long period of time, as this was historically, without much exception, my family’s way. After about 10 years of living that life whilst remaining academically engaged during my middle school, high school and undergraduate studies, my curiosity eventually pulled me strongly enough toward a career in medicine, despite the cherished comforts of my family and friends. Although monetary and academic support systems were initially limited, my devotion to the scientific process of cerebral exploration, in the context of an acquired appreciation for the significance of a unified community, provided a fuel that would have otherwise been absent from my early life situation.

It was for these reasons that the opportunity to attend the Island Medical Program in Victoria, to deliver my first baby in the room that I was born in, was such a personally valuable prospect. Since that time, the subsequent stages of my intellectual differentiation have required an increasing physical distance from my hometown, family, and friends, and like many participants in this unique profession will tell you, this type of sacrifice can at times be a taxing circumstance to come to terms with. The personal and financial costs incurred by following one’s dreams, so to speak, are in my estimation rarely trivial. Despite stepping outside of my preceding comfort zone, I have been so fortunate to call Vancouver, the birthplace of my beloved fiancée Michelle, home. To be a part of British Columbia’s Pathology community is a gift from the determiners of fate that I will be forever grateful for.

My dad always taught me that you get incrementally closer to your true potential for every situation that you surround yourself with people who are better than you at something.

My dad always taught me that you get incrementally closer to your true potential for every situation that you surround yourself with people who are better than you at something. It worked in baseball, and it works in Pathology. My Pathologist staff members and co-residents alike are among the most brilliant people I’ve ever observed in person, and I learn something foundationally ground-breaking from many of them on a near daily basis. They regularly remind me of the nuance to biologic operations, and help to guide me through the grey that lies in between the black and white, stimulating a first principles-based orientation to pathophysiologic processes that still knows its limits. I’ve never felt more challenged, and never more curious than in my last four years with the folks at UBC Pathology. It has truly been lifechanging, and I say that genuinely.

My co-residents are an inquisitive and encouraging bunch. Together, we’ve created an atmosphere that pushes our participants to their intellectual limits while attempting to maintain processes which engage a mindful dissolution of tendencies that might favor egotism or one-upmanship. I believe that our group has tapped-in to an approach that has accelerated our collective competencies, but which has also made life richer and more colorful in the context of our communal curiosity, and support for one-another. It really is quite a powerful professional circumstance to be a part of.

In terms of my current day-to-day, my department has transitioned me to a more independent approach to daily work, be it regarding macroscopic or microscopic tasks, allowing for an opportunity to develop my own stylistic idiosyncrasies and diagnostic thresholds, with appropriate and safe oversight: A pseudo-pathologist, if you will. Even early on in my training, I’ve consistently felt supported while being pushed to take professional ownership of the cases that I’ve helped to oversee. That support has yielded a pay-it-forward reflex which has encouraged me to become heavily involved in the teaching of undergraduate and medical students, in addition to our more junior Anatomical Pathology residents.

Getting back to basics with a morning paddle through Deep Cove

My life outside of work has become a progressively smaller proportion of my life as my Royal College exam has loomed nearer. I nonetheless still find time to explore nature, as would be expected from a BC local. Even in the context of a pandemic, Michelle and I still take the paddle boards out to Deep Cove, hike around Horseshoe Bay, and waterski out at her family’s cabin on Sakinaw lake. Snow-skiing has also been a huge part of my life after spending my high-school years in Campbell River, which as you might know is in relatively close proximity to Mt. Washington, a wannabe Whistler/Blackcomb.

In terms of what’s to come, the future is always riddled with uncertainty, as I’m sure you well appreciate. That being said, I have arranged a Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Pathology fellowship in Toronto for the 2021/2022 academic year. After that, to be afforded the opportunity to serve the province which has given me such a rewarding career and life thus far, would be something that I would value quite a lot. Most of all, I would hope that maintaining the relationships I’ve made, both near and far, would bring us all a little closer to our own respective potentials, while helping to advance the species’ understanding of ourselves as much as possible.

It has been an absolute pleasure to be a part of this most remarkable team. Over and out.