The power of two

Drs. Jennifer Coulson and Jaclyn Ernst

Twins, Drs. Jennifer Coulson and Jaclyn Ernst understand better than most the value of sticking together. The young physicians are sharing their unique story with the hope of inspiring the next generation of Indigenous learners.

By Emily Leighton, MA’13

Only seven minutes separate fraternal twins Drs. Jennifer Coulson, MD’12, and Jaclyn Ernst, MD’12. Seven minutes where one existed in the world and the other did not.

And with their matching dark, expressive eyes and bright smiles, it’s easy to see why Jenn and Jackie—as they prefer to be called—consider themselves a package deal.

“We share so much in terms of our personalities and our interests,” said Jenn. The self-described A-type personalities not only share a birthday and a penchant for celebrity news, but also two alma maters and their chosen profession—medicine.

“In elementary school, twins are put into separate classes to encourage each to branch out, to develop individuality,” said Jackie. “And that was the case for us —only we tried going in different directions, but we came back together the second we could.”

And when it comes to their similarities, there is a lifetime of humorous moments. One of their favourites is from interview day at Schulich Medicine, as applicants for the MD program. It was 2008 and both were scheduled to interview on a Saturday afternoon in March. Jackie remembers exiting the interview room to find Jenn seated outside, waiting as the next candidate for the same interview team.

“The interviewers must have thought they were interviewing the same person twice,” said Jenn. “At that point, we’d gone to the same school, worked the same part-time job, and also prepped together for the interview questions.” “I’m sure we made exactly the same jokes,” added Jackie with a laugh.

“Once young students see role models that show postsecondary education is a possibility, that plants the seed that they can also achieve these things. Having positive influences to encourage and supp ort is something a lot of people take for granted, but it’s so important for confidence and motivation.”
— Dr. Jaclyn Ernst, MD’12

Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, the pair grew up closely connected to their Indigenous heritage—their mother belongs to the Lower Cayuga Nation and took them for weekly Sunday visits to the close-by Six Nations of Grand River reserve to spend time with family.

It’s an identity and way of life the sisters deeply value and respect. “Our culture is something we’ve always been proud of,” explained Jenn. “We see it as having an extremely positive influence on our education and career choices.”

Those choices led them to the University of Waterloo as undergrads. Jenn completed a degree in kinesiology, while Jackie graduated from biomedical sciences.

Family legacy and a sense of belonging attracted them to the Western University campus for medical school. Their maternal grandmother graduated from Western’s teacher’s college in the late 80s—a significant achievement for an Indigenous woman at a time of widespread discrimination.

“It was such a proud moment for our family when they found out we were going to Western,” said Jenn. The sisters filled two of three seats Schulich Medicine sets aside for First Nations, Métis or Inuit students in each year of the MD program.

These days, seven minutes isn’t the only distinguishing difference between the two 30-year-olds. They are each charting their own course in medicine; independent paths that have brought them to new cities and distinct experiences.

For Jenn, the appeal of family medicine was apparent from the day she entered the School’s hallways. Now a practising family physician working in the Cambridge area, she is also a new parent, having given birth to her daughter, Claire, in spring 2016.

Jackie completed her internal medicine residency at Schulich Medicine in 2015 and is currently pursuing a general internal medicine fellowship at the University of Ottawa. She will be returning to Hamilton for a placement in perioperative medicine; an opportunity she hopes will advance her specialty training. “And it will be nice to be closer to family,” she said.

“That means babysitting in her spare time,” Jenn chimed in with a grin.

The natural banter and infectious laughter comes as effortlessly as one would expect from such a remarkable partnership. But a more serious and sincere sense of duty emerges when talk turns to the sisters’ aspirations to give back to their community.

“Our Aboriginal community has been so supportive of us and our education, and we want to inspire the next generation to consider a career in medicine,” said Jenn.

During their time at Schulich Medicine, both sisters participated in visits to local high schools to promote postsecondary education to other Indigenous students. And Jackie helped recruit students for the School’s Medical Learning in Community Settings (MedLINCS) program with the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation community southwest of London.

It’s this type of fulfilling work they intend to continue by sharing their personal and professional experiences. “Once young students see role models that show postsecondary education is a possibility, that plants the seed that they can also achieve these things,” said Jackie. “Having positive influences to encourage and support is something a lot of people take for granted, but it’s so important for confidence and motivation.”

And as the twin sisters know well, sticking together is always better (and certainly more fun) than going it alone.