Dr. Andrew Baker, the Cara Phelan Chair of Critical Care Medicine, has taken on the mantle of leadership time and again in his 32 years at St. Michael’s Hospital. He’s Chief of the Anesthesia and Critical Care departments, Director of the Keenan Research Centre’s Brain Injury Research Laboratory, and Medical Director of the Surgery and Critical Care Program. If that’s not enough, he recently assumed another leadership role – joining Dr. Carolyn Snider and Dr. Najma Ahmed as a medical co-chair of HUMANCARE. “I learned long ago that when it comes to taking care of our people, it takes a village – the hospital staff and leadership – but also the Foundation and donors and volunteers,” he says.
Here’s what inspires Dr. Baker, and how he recharges after a long work day.
What inspired you to volunteer as medical co-chair of HUMANCARE?
HUMANCARE is the best representation I’ve ever seen of what we’re about. We’ve always been a values-based organization. We have experts who are here for the right reasons. I believe the space that surrounds patients is a sacred space, and this campaign articulates that beautifully. In critical care, I see a lot of tragedy. I’ve said to many people that when it comes to understanding life and death, it’s how we define the moment. We can change the quality of the moment for our patients.
Speaking as a doctor, what’s an ideal patient experience?
It’s when a patient feels like you’re a partner in their health care. It used to be that patients went to the doctor and asked us what we’ll do with their problem. Now we’re coming in as health-care experts to partner with patients, who need to feel agency. How we communicate is really important. I teach medical residents that patients and families need two things: they need to feel we really care … and they need us to really care. It’s funny, but both are true.
It’s been a tough two years. What’s kept you and your team going?
Health care is a calling, and even after years of regular work, you know someday you may be called to do special work. This was one of those moments for all of us. We were as scared at the beginning of this pandemic as we were at the beginning of SARS. No one knows the end of the story when you’re in the middle of the story. But everyone was doing their best for the right reasons. Coping was a combination of shortening one’s horizons and saying, ‘We’re going to deal with today as best as we can.’
How do you recharge?
I like the physical act of reading. I put in long hours –and every two or three minutes there’s another transaction. When you read for an hour or two, you can rest your eyes and your brain is doing just one thing. It’s way better than TV. I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom – an entertaining study of modern American culture. I also listen to a lot of audiobooks. Right now, I’m listening to Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation. It’s a sober book, but it gives historical perspective on how major figures through history have faced tragedy and consoled themselves.
I also work out almost every day. I have a Peloton and weights in the basement. My wife and I brought home a Shih Tzu puppy in October – his name is Sancho Panza. We have a sailboat named Dulcinea, and in the summer, we love sailing. We can escape together. It’s so wonderful to turn off the engine and put the sails up and have that freedom, sailing around Toronto or down to the Thousand Islands.
Is there a career high that brings you pride?
In March 2020, I was named incident commander for the Ontario Critical Care COVID-19 Command Centre, responsible for handling all the critical-care beds and related patient transfers across the province in response to pandemic pressures. Later that year, I also became incident commander for the command centre responsible for pandemic-related patient transfers between all hospital beds – both acute and post-acute – across the Greater Toronto Area.
We were making important decisions about moving patients while balancing resources, people and logistic elements. What we achieved was amazing. We created a sense of a single system right across the province. We moved over 3,000 patients within the GTA and over 1,000 critical-care patients across Ontario. We’d ask people to do things on short notice and they were jumping at the chance to help. It was a peak experience.
What trend in medicine are you most excited about?
Precision medicine and our ability to understand the disease mechanism. Our research at St. Michael’s is changing the medical textbook from Chapter 1: The Heart; Chapter 2: The Lung; Chapter 3: The Liver to Chapter 1: This Gene; Chapter 2: This Receptor; Chapter 3: This Biochemical. It’s a complete shift in our framework and relates to everything from how we create vaccines to how we modulate inflammation. I’m also amazed by the level of science in the world today. If the pandemic had happened in 2010, many more people would have died, but what we’ve discovered in the meantime – things like when you ventilate people on their stomachs instead of their backs – has been life-saving. Our research on mechanical ventilation impacted survival worldwide. I will never lose that enthusiasm for fundamental medical research that saves lives.
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