Exemplary physician, compassionate cheerleader

Dr. Laura Lyons at St. Joseph’s Family Medical and Dental Centre was one of seven physicians in the province named Regional Family Physician of the Year in 2021 by the Ontario College of Family Physicians. It’s an honour that celebrates the vital contributions family doctors make to their patients, communities and the health care system. The story below, and the words of just one of many patients, highlights just why this dedicated physician is so deserving of the recognition. Meet Dr. Laura Lyons and learn how she is filling a great need, regionally and nationally, as an expert in the care of pregnant women who are struggling with addiction.

A life of trauma would describe Jodi’s turbulent childhood. Repeatedly sexually assaulted, which was known to her family yet ignored, she would go on to be victimized many times in different ways, and become trapped in addiction. 

From alcohol, cocaine and ecstasy in high school, Jodi’s world evolved into a whirlwind of drugs, partying and destructive relationships. An attempt at methadone treatment failed and her addiction to opioids led to injecting hydromorphone. 

Dr. Laura Lyons looking fondly at a newborn infant in her arms
Dr. Laura Lyons at St. Joseph’s Family Medical and Dental Centre chose family medicine because of the opportunity it gives her to create connections and continuous relationships with patients of all ages and generations of families, from birth to end-of-life care.

“The first time I injected, it was either going to be a suicide attempt or the needle. After my first shot of hydromorph, there was no turning back. I was 28 years old. I began using all day, every day.”

“There is no way one human could treat all of her patients the way she accommodates me – but she probably does.”

Eventually, Jodi was able to extricate herself from her circle of addicted companions and move to a different home. She was using less but still using when, in 2012, she became pregnant with her partner’s child. 

“The morning after I got the positive test, I went to the emergency department and said ‘I need help, I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to use. I want this baby.’”

Dr. Laura Lyons would become Jodi’s guide, inspiration and anchor, providing support and compassion she had never experienced before and that continues today. 

“She has supported me in every way shape and form. If I make a mistake, it’s ‘how can we get through it? How can we move on? What’s the next step?’ There is no way one human could treat all of her patients the way she accommodates me – but she probably does.”

Recognizing a need

Regionally and nationally, Dr. Lyons has carved out a niche as an expert in the care of pregnant women who are struggling with substance dependence and addiction. She sees women in her practice at St. Joseph’s Family Medical and Dental Centre and as clinic lead with the Obstetrical Self-Referral Outpatient Clinic at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) for women without a family doctor who need prenatal care. It was at the clinic she uncovered a need to care for many of these patients differently.

“Without her I don’t know that I’d even be alive today.”

“I encountered a number of women struggling with substance use disorder,” says Dr. Lyons. “These women were often angry, likely scared, and distrustful during their visits at the hospital. I came to realize they all had a history of being treated poorly by people of authority and institutions. I also knew we weren’t serving them in the best way possible. There were not the resources in London that met their unique needs, which requires treating addictions while simultaneously providing prenatal care.” 

When both are offered together, adds Dr. Lyons, research strongly supports improved outcomes for both mom and baby.

Dr. Laura Lyons listening to an infant's heart with a stethoscope

“Pregnancy is a wonderful window of opportunity to support women with substance use disorder with their recovery,” says Dr. Lyons. “Women are highly motivated for the health and well-being of their child.”

Wanting to take full advantage of that window, Dr. Lyons became certified in addiction medicine and has taken a leading role in training staff to provide non-judgmental support for pregnant women in recovery, and in the development of policies to promote best care practices for these mothers and babies post-partum. One such policy ensures affected newborns are screened for signs of withdrawal, receive the most appropriate care, and that parents and caregivers are educated on how to care for babies with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome.

Under Dr. Lyons expert care, a pregnant Jodi began receiving medication to treat her opioid addiction and was making good progress coming off drugs. She was hoping to be clean by her due date but it wasn’t to be. Unforeseen complications led to her son being born at 28 weeks and a whole new ordeal began. The baby, however, did not suffer withdrawal symptoms because of the treatment Jodi received leading up to his birth.   

“It was only with Dr. Lyons at my side could I face the neonatal intensive care experience while continuing to detox,” says Jodi, who becomes emotional talking about the importance of Dr. Lyons in her life. “I still rely heavily on her to keep me going when I feel myself spiraling. She’s still always there.”

In addition to her role at St. Joseph’s and LHSC’s Obstetrical Self- Referral Outpatient Clinic, Dr. Lyons is Director of Family Medicine Obstetrics for Western University’s Department of Family Medicine, and Associate Chief of Family Medicine at LHSC. A role model, mentor and educator, her passion for maternal and newborn care has resulted in the doubling of family medicine obstetrics practitioners in London during her leadership over the last decade, say colleagues. In addition to teaching residents in her family practice, she developed a mandatory hands-on obstetrics workshop for post-graduate trainees, as well as bi-monthly family medicine obstetrics grand rounds within the region to enhance continuing medical education for family physicians, midwives, and medical learners.

In the beginning

Interestingly, Dr. Lyons did not begin her illustrious health care career as a physician. After graduating from school, a young Laura became a play therapist for children in hospital, a position she enjoyed for 10 years during which she became Director of Child Life Studies at McMaster University and assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics. Inspired to expand her scope and skills, she started medical school in 1999, when her youngest child was in kindergarten, and became Dr. Lyons thinking she would practice paediatrics.

Dr. Laura Lyons wearing a stethoscope and smiling

“But my training journey took me to family medicine, a discipline that enables doctors to develop strong continuous relationships with patients of all ages, and serve different generations of one family. I was also very interested in obstetrics and in family medicine I could do it all – cradle to grave medicine. It is truly a privilege to care for people and be allowed into their lives. I am fortunate that I can support families, from births to providing home care for those palliating.” 

Today, Jodi is a mom of two beautiful children with her partner, and owns her own business. Her oldest is now nine, her youngest almost one. She calls them “my reasons” – for staying the course, staying healthy. She admits that life is still hard and she will forever be an addict in recovery, but Dr. Lyons remains her “biggest cheerleader.”

“Without her I don’t know that I’d even be alive today. If I was, my life most certainly wouldn’t look the way it does. I am so far from where I was. While I still have my struggles, life only keeps moving in a positive direction.” 

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