With tongue firmly in cheek, a friend recently remarked that “Town-Gown” relations seem somewhat strained in our community these days. A remarkable example of impish understatement if one was ever uttered. Indeed, the usual energy and sense of renewal that accompanies the return of students each September has been muted if not completely submerged under layers of pandemic-related anxiety and efforts intended to mitigate them. The juxtaposition of such efforts with images of unrestrained street parties, fenced off beach areas and rising local COVID case counts has been, for many, rather jarring and unsettling.

Amid all this, I recently received a letter from a local physician that cut through that gloom like a glimmer of sunshine on a stormy day. Dr. Stephen Yates, a longstanding Family Physician in our community, wrote to Dr. Philpott and myself about his experiences working in vaccination clinics alongside volunteer medical students. In Dr. Yates own words (provided in part and abridged with his permission):

I am writing to you both after a very busy 6 months working as the Clinical Lead at several community covid19 Mass Immunization Clinics that have run from March to August this year. Those MIC’s put Kingston on the “Vaccine Map” of Canada as one the very highest vaccine rates in a Canadian community.

We could not have accomplished this extremely successful vaccine roll out without volunteers and the Queen’s Medical School Students stepped up to the plate and helped us out. When the medical school academic year ended numerous 1st and 2nd year students, with a few 3rd and 4th year, and even a few students entering the school this year, came forward to donate their time.

To try and name all the students who took part will leave many students out by mistake but suffice it to say…all the students were an absolute delight to get to know and to work with.

Whether organizing student volunteers, helping with vaccine draws, functioning as principal vaccinators, organizing recipient stand by lists for extra vaccines, calling literally hundreds of recipients in for shots, reviewing side effects or even managing vaccine hesitancy, your students were exemplary and were key to helping this community get through the pandemic.

The community of Kingston owes a great debt of gratitude to your medical students!

Very best regards,

Dr Stephen Yates, MD, CCFP, FCFP

Kingston and its student population. A raucous, tempestuous, never-fully-resolved, but also never-boring relationship. A marriage, it would seem, doomed to constant struggle, never to achieve either complete happiness or peaceful separation. To the cynical or those hopelessly frustrated by all this, the idiom “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” might seem appropriately applied, by either party. But, like any relationship experiencing difficulty, causes are deep, complex and worthy of some thoughtful reflection. Like many, I encountered our city initially as a student, have embraced it as adopted home, raised a family here, have seen numerous family members attend as students, and now live both sides of the “Town-Gown” dichotomy. And so, some observations, respectfully offered.

Firstly, it must be said, Kingston would not be Kingston without its students. This is not simply an economic or political reality. The student population brings energy, purpose and, on a regular cycle, youthful renewal to one of the oldest communities in our country. The city of Kingston, for many generations of students, has provided a supportive environment and wonderful example of community life. It has been an incubator of citizens who learn what it means to be part of and to care for their “home”. Its productivity or place in Canadian society will never be measured in terms of manufactured goods or agricultural productivity. Its true “product” are the young people whose lives are, in ways great and small, shaped by their lived experience among us.  

For most students, their time in Kingston is their first experience living, to some extent at least, on their own. They are going through a very challenging phase of life during which most struggle with understanding and developing their own interests, strengths, values, and purpose in life. For most of them, the time they spend in Kingston will be the most transformational of their lives.

That transformation doesn’t occur entirely or even mostly in the classrooms of Queen’s, RMC or St. Lawrence College. It also happens in the streets, shops, restaurants, waterfront, trails, lakes, and rivers of our community. It happens through interactions with their fellow students and faculty they encounter to be sure, but also within the community in which they must function, independent of the influences and supports of home. Those encounters, as we’ve observed recently, can be ill-advised and troublesome. Judgement may be lacking, consequences may not be understood or ignored, actions may be impulsively taken, untempered by experience. This is not to say that actions should be free of consequences. In fact, it would be a disservice not to maintain standards based on the best interests of the greater community. But those responses should be directed at the actions not the individuals, motivated by a desire to correct not condemn, and tempered with the understanding that most of us will have no difficulty recalling similar lapses of judgement if challenged to cast the first stone.

Symbiosis is a biologic term that might have relevance here. It implies a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups. Hummingbirds, for example, have a symbiotic relationship with wildflowers. The birds are feeding on nectar provided by the flowers and gaining nourishment. Without that occasional noisy intervention, the flowers would not cross-pollinate and and would not flourish so beautifully.

It’s also helpful to be reminded that the vast majority of students integrate well and even contribute positively to our community. For a group of eager medical students, that contribution occurred recently in an immunization clinic.

Thank you, Dr. Yates, for the reminder. When it comes to students and Kingston, it’s not “them” and “us”. They are us.