Dr. Richard Currie thrives on adventure.
And, at 34, he has seen and done more than many people accomplish in a lifetime.
A Graduate of Queen’s University Medical School and UBC Kelowna’s rural family medicine program, Currie was drawn to B.C. by a sense of adventure.
“I came out here and realized I wasn’t going back, and I chose rural medicine because I appreciate the rural lifestyle,” says Shuswap Lake Hospital’s head of emergency. “I appreciate the challenge of a diverse caseload and being able to follow the same patient through various settings and getting to know families.”
Currie is also well-acquainted with parts of the world where poverty and neglect are the norm.
In 2004, he embarked on his first tour with Médecins sans Frontière (MSF) and has since served in Ethiopia, Central African Republic and Kenya. He worked in Vietnam and Ghana as a medical student and resident, and for four months in Peru as part of a UBC program.
He says MSF tends to set disease-specific projects, such as his tour in Ethiopia, where kala azar, a rare, often fatal parasitic disease is caused by sandfly bites. Unfortunately, in some cases, so does the available medicine, an issue that draws passionate criticism.
“It’s a neglected disease, it only affects the poor. That’s why MSF was there trying to treat it,” he says. “Drug companies are not interested in diseases that don’t come with a big paycheque. We had to use medications that are not available in North America because they are considered toxic or too dangerous.”
Currie is proud that MSF, founded in France in 1971, used the $1 million attached to their 1999 Nobel Peace Prize to launch a Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, which raises awareness about neglected diseases, fighting international patent law and changing the drug development process to focus on need as opposed to profit.
Currie is also proud of MSF’s stand on issues.
“MSF changed the face of humanitarian aide,” he says. “They do take sides in issues, they do not hide on the sidelines, they speak out.”
While each tour is disease-specific, Currie says the reality is one goes to provide care.
“You end up being the only doctor or hospital in the area and you can’t help but treat anything that comes to the door,” he says. “You’re not going to turn them away if they’ve walked three days to get there.”
While he has amassed a number of stories, it is the attitude of newcomers to Canada that has affected him deeply.
“I spent a couple of months in a refugee clinic in Vancouver and I was always impressed with the courage and strength of families who come here and are able to move ahead,” he says, pointing to survivors of the Rwandan genocide, for example. “If you ask, they’ll tell you the most horrific things. But they don’t focus on that, they look ahead…”
And while the people he meets in refugee clinics or on international assignments may have next to nothing in terms of material goods, they mostly possess an intrinsic joy of living.
“If they can’t be seen one day, they’ll lean up a tree and wait for the next morning,” he says. “They’re always smiling and always grateful.”
The contrast between the lack in some of the countries he has visited and the over-abundance of the western world is sometimes difficult to swallow.
Currie recalls arriving home once close to Christmas and heading down to the local mall on a gift-buying mission.
“I was totally overwhelmed by how people were so unhappy about buying gifts,” he says, noting he had to leave the mall.
“We’ve lost our way, I think. And until we have all the answers, we shouldn’t act as if we do.”
Currie will continue along his own path, offering his skills and fighting for access to health-care here and abroad. He will head out on another six-month MSF tour in March, destination to be revealed in the new year.
“It boils down to getting involved because you can,” he says. “Everyone wants to contribute and it’s also a tremendous privilege to see so many beautiful parts of the world.”