What it’s like living as a doctor under the (Toronto) poverty line

“Hey, would you like to come catch some lunch with us? There’s this new Mexican place around the corner.”

“No thank you, I have a lot of work to do, I’m going to stay here and catch up on some documentation, next time though!”

“Alright, have a good lunch.”

I quietly closed my office door and flushed pink with embarrassment. I hope that was convincing. I reached for my battered book-bag, and pulled out the two slices of toast and the bag of almonds I had laying around the apartment that morning. My chopped up frozen peas and corn were still frozen.

It tasted a little like cardboard, but it was OK. As I sat eating, I couldn’t help but think about other social events I had to come up with some elaborate excuse to avoid, because I was broke. Beyond broke. I recalled the Tim Horton’s server earlier that week, who stood by annoyed as she counted out my forty nickles – or I thought it was forty. I was five cents short; luckily the annoyed customer behind me overheard and threw a dime down on the table, a little in kindness, but also to help get the line moving, I thought.

That was three days ago. I haven’t been able to afford a coffee all week.

It gets more difficult some days, particularly when tempted with succulent chicken polo frito I know I can’t have. I looked down at my jeans, which I had worn every day this week. They looked shabby and I saw a small yellow dot of something – mustard? – on one pocket. I tried to brush the spot off but it only smeared the yellow-goo deeper into the fabric. I felt the seam of the jeans, gently rubbing the pale, white thread I could tell was going to give out, at some point. Hopefully they last until my birthday… I only owned two pairs of pants that fit me you see, and one was in the wash.

And the drier was broke.

kid s blue shirt hanging on the clothesline
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

This scene may seem vivid, I hope it is. These events don’t begin to touch on the poverty many residents of the world, country, and Toronto face on a daily basis. I have a relatively safe apartment in a decent neighbourhood, and most months I can afford to get a transit pass.

This story is also about me, and it’s not where I expected to end up as a doctor. So what gives?

For those of you who have read this blog for some time, you will know that I am something called a resident physician. Residents are kind of primordial doctors, having finished medical school, and now completing a program in the specialized area of medicine they will eventually work in for the rest of their life.

Becoming a resident, and a doctor, takes many things. It takes academic rigour, professionalism, dedication, and mental toughness. It also takes a tremendous amount of money.

To enter medical school, you need an undergraduate degree. For most people in Canada, those degrees, four years in duration, can cost anywhere from $10 000 to $50 000, depending on the school you attend. Most young people in Canada don’t have this kind of money just sitting around, and ultimately the vast majority of university students depend on one of two sources of funding – student loans, or help from their parents. Leaving conversations about how the education system is designed to discriminate against the poor aside, I’ll mention here that I was one of the more fortunate undergraduate students at Memorial University, and only graduated with about $15 000 in student loan debt.

In the fourth year of my BSc (Hons) in Cell and Molecular Biology, I began applying to medical schools – at about $700/$800 per application. Those of you who know anything about medical school admissions knows that you don’t want to “hang your hat” on one school, it’s not unlike the lottery. Keeping this in mind, I ultimately opted to apply to seven medical schools, which stung my pockets, but felt necessary at the time.

I was ultimately offered two interviews, one of them here in Ontario, and after some reflection and my acceptance, I found out I was going to medical school! In Windsor, Ontario.

Most Canadians mistakenly associate things like $25 000 a year education to places like the United States. Not so, for medical school. I was dismayed to realize my tuition would be that, and more per year, considering the various $1000 “enrollment fees” and the “one time $800 course fees,” for the odd mandatory skill seminar put off by the school. I did the math, and yes, this was going to cost me $100 000. And I was going to pay interest on that money, as well as my $15 000 student loan, every single day, until the time I graduate. (As an additional fuck-you from my medical school, they went on to increase the cost of tuition every single year I was in medical school; my fourth year, initially supposed to be $21 000, the cheapest year since it was essentially six-months in duration, costed $26 000 by the time for me to pay).

Now of course, as anyone with student loans will attest to, the cost of education is hell of a lot more than tuition. There are textbook costs, transit passes, rent, groceries. All of these things costed money, and since I was going to school 3000 km away from my nearest relative, I had nobody to lean on.

It’s here my trajectory deflected from my colleagues. You see, not everyone enters medical school as equals. The vast majority of my colleagues received significant financial help during medical school from their families. Most people in medicine you see, have doctors for parents, many have a trust fund. A quick Google search can shed light on the tremendous problems of socieoeconomic skewing in medical school classes – it seems like hiring and accepting people from penthouse suites doesn’t increase physician availability in the projects (no s*** guys I could have told you that)!

This is also the case in all education programs, where some students have it better than others, but when you’re surrounded by people without student loans, travelling across the world on the odd weekend, you feel it a bit more. Everything I paid for in medical school was on my back, and it still is.

And I’ll be the first to admit it. I had housing costs, groceries, living expenses. I also enjoyed myself during medical school, not excessively, but in an effort to feel like a part of my class. It was difficult, living in Ontario, and being the only person not travelling to Europe over the summer. It hurt wearing shabby mall-bought clothes among my peers when most of them shopped at expensive outlets.

I eventually finished medical school, and it was finally time for a pay day.

I also fell in love.

I ended up being accepted into a residency program at the University of Toronto, and I moved to the city to be with my partner. She had just finished a different academic program herself, and we had very little money. We accepted the cheapest apartment we could find that had access to the subway. You see, with both my partner and myself working in health care, we worked 12 hour days, if not longer, and a two-hour-each-direction transit ride was not an option. We found something that was a 45 minute transit ride away from our work, 700sqft, at $1800 a month. Yes, that’s obscene. It’s also the reality in Toronto.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimates that housing becomes “unaffordable” when it takes up more than 30% of your income. Many people in Toronto are in an unaffordable housing situation, myself included. This rent costs about 52% of my income per month.

Now I know what you’re saying. “That’s not a lot of money for a doctor.” It is for a resident. My resident salary in Ontario is $58 000, before taxes.

And before my $1200 of student loan INTEREST payments a month (barf).

And before groceries.

And before cell phone.

And before my transit pass.

At the end of the day, it’s really not a whole lot of money. There’s often a month where I have no transit pass for the first few weeks, and I count dimes I have left around the house in hopes of getting on. A few times, I’ve had to sneak onto the bus. Often the bills go unpaid. Don’t ask me about my VISA.

All of that to say, I’m hurting, and a lot of young professionals in this country and city are as well. It’s atrocious that medical schools, or any school, can gouge you for money they know is going to sit on your student loans – I’ve paid enough interest to my bank at this point I could have almost paid off a quarter of my debt. It’s disgusting that the government of Ontario does not account for the school of residency when determining salary – you make the same in Thunder Bay, with a significantly lower cost of living, than you do in Toronto, the most expensive city in the country.

So what’s it like living like a doctor near the poverty line? Just ask me.

selective focus photo of pink tablets
Photo by Dear W on Pexels.com

It was happening again. These damn asthma attacks. My shortness of breath was getting worse, and I was bent over breathing to try and get a sufficient breath.

“I think I need to go to the hospital.”

An ambulance costed $75… I checked my Uber app – declined. “Please update payment method.” Fuck.

I got in the subway, wickedly coughing, and then transferred to a bus, which I took to the hospital. I was somewhat blue by the time I got there, and they admitted me right away. They prescribed some puffers, and told me to take my allergy pills.

The following day, I went to the pharmacy with my two puffer prescriptions. I left the allergy pills in the aisle – $15 for ten pills? Not happening.

“Alright, that will be $15.”

“I thought my insurance plan covered the drug costs?”

“It does, but for this medication, there’s a co-pay.”

“I’ll only take the one then.”

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

3 thoughts on “What it’s like living as a doctor under the (Toronto) poverty line

  1. This was a fascinating look at something most of us would otherwise never know. Thank you for sharing. Just stick with it and in time, when things have turned around, be there to support the residents of the future going through tough times that you know firsthand so well.

    Liked by 1 person

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