Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, Director, Student Health Services

From Hippocrates to Marcus Welby, MD

Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier on the hype surrounding the H1N1 flu: It could be Y2K all over again, and people will say, we over-prepared, what was all the fuss about? But, when the ‘big one' hits, we, as a society may be ill-prepared, so it pays to be diligent. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Cynthia Lee

While Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier’s medical training is rooted in family medicine, it is his interest in the health issues of young people that has come to define his work at McGill. For almost 30 years, Dr. Tellier, Director of Student Health Services, has kept McGill students hale and hearty – all the while educating them on ways to stay that way. His concerns over the rising rates of sexually transmitted infections among young people led to the 2005 opening of the Shagalicious Shop, the University’s on-campus boutique where the condoms cost money but the advice – and there’s plenty of that – is free. Today, Dr. T., as he is known, is the point man as McGill braces itself for H1N1 flu. Recently, Dr. Tellier sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk H1N1, sex ed. and Marcus Welby.

Tell me about your job.

I have three jobs actually. I’m the Director of Student Health Services and I work as a physician at Head and Hands [a community health clinic in N.D.G.] and the Herzl Family Medicine Unit at the Jewish General Hospital. Actually I’m transitioning; I just finished as Director of the Office of Student Affairs for the Faculty of Medicine. The plan is to be involved in more clinical work in order to see more students. That way, I can do more, such as continue planning for H1N1.

How much of what we read about H1N1 is misinformation?

Much of it is hype because there are unknowns and people need to fill news – it’s a way to sell papers. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so it could be Y2K all over again, and people will say, we over-prepared, what was all the fuss about? But, when the ‘big one’ hits, we, as a society may be ill-prepared, so it pays to be diligent.

How prepared is McGill?

We’ve been preparing for many months now. Our meetings have been ongoing and we have formed sub-groups – for example for academic issues, the residences, human resources. We are developing our plans and when we come up with policies and as they are finalized, people are made aware. Everyone has been asked to make a plan and these plans are being reviewed.

We recently kicked off our “Don’t make me sick” campaign with informational posters, refillable hand sanitizer give-aways, and installing wall-mounted ones. I think the timing’s perfect. If the hand sanitizers had been installed months ago, people would have taken them for granted.

Will hand sanitizers keep us H1N1 free?

The hand sanitizers are an educational tool – not the solution. It’s like a yield sign that says ‘Be aware – this is what is happening.’ That is why we encourage people to carry their own.

What can McGillians do to curb the spread of H1N1?

Take care of themselves, first of all; and go to www.mcgill.ca/health to stay informed. We live with other people who are potentially infectious and we have a social responsibility to take care of ourselves. If I sneeze, I wash my hands so as not to infect others. Better yet, cough into your sleeve. It is a matter of personal responsibility.

Do you recommend people get vaccinated against H1N1?

The idea is to vaccinate a sufficient number of people to stop the virus from transmitting. So yes, the more people we get vaccinated, theoretically, the more we should limit the spread of H1N1. We will get the H1N1 vaccine this fall and we’ve just learned that there will be huge immunization clinics. Priority groups will be invited first – they are being identified.

What if someone becomes ill?

If someone is ill, they should keep a close eye on their symptoms. If you get the flu and if you have an underlying medical condition such as cardiac disease, asthma or rheumatoid arthritis, you should seek immediate care, because you may deteriorate quickly.

Where were you born?

In Berthierville, Que., but moved when I was 10. My dad was a printer at a match factory and the factory closed, so we all moved to Pembrooke, Ont. That’s where I learned to speak English.

Do you come from a large family?

I have over 60 first cousins (my mom has 13 brothers and sisters) and of those only a handful have gone beyond high school. So for me to be a physician, it’s unique within that environment.

Who or what inspired you to become a doctor?

My mom and biology class. In high school in Pembrooke, I took an extra class in biology and loved it.

My other inspiration was my mom. I remember hating my very first day at school. When I got back home, I cried and told my mother that I was never going back. She said to me “You’re going to go to school and you’re going to go for a long time, Pierre-Paul.” It is probably the only time I really listened to my parents.

Anything else?

[Laughing] Actually, I wanted to be just like Marcus Welby M.D. on TV. He could do anything. He was one of those “mega” physicians… it was the interpersonal interaction, the caring that he exemplified, that’s what I

liked. Not necessarily the technique, but the way he was always there for people, helping them.

Where does your empathy come from?

Being gay has taught me a lot about empathy. Years ago I was invited to talk about McGill and my experiences with people from different cultures. I looked at my own life and how have I evolved and it helped me hone my understanding of all types of people.

As a gay man, I was forced to rebel against everything I was taught in my youth – religion, race, sexuality – everything. I began questioning my beliefs and that’s how I evolved.

Have the issues that youths face today changed much from when you began working as a doctor?

God no! The issues are the same, only the fashions have changed.

What are some of those issues?

Sex, drugs and what I like to call “rock and roll.” Sex is about sex and all that comes with it. Rock and roll is about substance abuse, drugs, and all that comes with that. The same kids that were there then when I first started as a doctor are the same ones I see today.

What was the impetus behind the Shagalicious Shop?

In a nutshell, we wanted to make health education more acceptable to students, and to create a place where they would feel comfortable. It used to be that students had to purchase condoms at Health Services. We wanted a place that was a little different, funkier – a place where students could have peer-to-peer education and health educators on hand. Everything is sold at cost. The Shag Shop provides opportunity to disseminate information about safe sexual practices and contraception. When we put the shop together people were very receptive. To me, it was, and remains, an opportunity to educate.

Speaking of education, how can people ask you health-related questions without making an appointment?

Go to the Dr. T page on the McGill website at www.mcgill.ca/health/drt/. People can ask me any kind of question via email.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?

Adele Hofmann, my mentor and supervisor from my early training days at Bellevue Hospital in New York from 1980-82. She is no longer with us. I would love to sit down with her and chat and ask her “Where do I go now Adele?”