For Dr. Dave Williams: alum, former astronaut, physician

Posted on Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dr. Dave Williams: "It is critical not to lose sight of providing passionate care with dignity and respect. That has been the hallmark of medicine throughout the ages. / Photo courtesy of the McGill Faculty of Medicine.

By Allison Flynn

It all began last year with a group of med students wanting to connect their education to the Montreal community. They understood that as future physicians they would have an essential responsibility not only to their patients, but also to the communities in which they lived. And so the McGill Community Health Alliance Project (CHAP) was born.

On Sept. 20, physician, former astronaut and proud McGill alum Dave Williams, BSc ’76, MDCM ’83; MSc ’83, DSC’07, will visit the Faculty of Medicine to honour two recent participants of the program. Williams will be on campus to host a lunch time seminar for medical students and to present the inaugural CHAP Awards – an award that he is generously sponsoring – to recognize medical student leaders in community outreach.

Q: Why is CHAP – and community outreach in general – so important for medical students?

In an era where institutionally based healthcare predominates, it is critical for medical students to learn about the wide range of social factors that affect the lives and health of those living in the community. In family practice, housecalls were part of my clinical activities and gave me profound insights into the many issues that had an impact on the success of clinical interventions. Later in my career as an emergency physician, I was once again seeing the health effects of underserviced populations firsthand when I rode in ambulances as part of our hospital’s quality assurance program as a base hospital for paramedic services. Understanding and actively engaging in community health initiatives should be an integral component of medical education and it is very exciting to see the success of this student-initiated project which has become part of the medical school curriculum.

How does this student engagement impact the community?

McGill medical students and those in other faculties have had a long history of meaningful involvement in community projects that have changed the lives of many individuals. Whether it is through projects like La Maison Bleue, the Yellow Door, Santropol Roulant, the Native Friendship Centre or local

citizen CPR initiatives, the close relationship between the McGill community and the local community has flourished. The benefit arising from the volunteer efforts, compassion and caring of the students, faculty guidance and the continued support of the Faculty of Medicine has had a major impact on community healthcare.

Why did you establish the CHAP Leadership Award at McGill?

The CHAP program focuses on community giving. As an undergraduate at McGill, my first apartment cost sixty dollars a month and visitors had to successfully negotiate a maze of alleyways to get to my front door adjacent to the trash bin. Throughout my studies I was extremely grateful for the support that I had from the McGill community and now look upon this as a great way to give back to the academic community that supported me. My career as an astronaut taught me about the importance of leadership, followership and peak team performance in making seemingly impossible mission objectives possible. The CHAP Leadership Award celebrates medical students in leadership roles making a difference in the everyday lives and health of those in the community. To me that is a cause worthy of support.

If you could impart one piece of advice to medical students today, what would that be?

Never forget the art of healing throughout your career as a physician. There have been many scientific advances in clinical practice over the course of my career. Today we have new preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic tools that have had a radical impact on the health of our patients. Often, I wonder whether or not this explosion of medical technology has overshadowed the importance of the art of medicine. My uncle died from streptococcal pharyngitis before the discovery of antibiotics, an era when the best that medicine had to offer was for the physician to sit beside the patient and hold their hand offering hope, reassurance and comfort. Today, as we rush from one patient to another, it is critical not to lose sight of providing compassionate care with dignity and respect, that has been the hallmark of medicine throughout the ages.

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