Dr. Richard Stanwick recalled massive achievements for public health, and challenges he foresees in the immediate future, as he formally announced his retirement as Island Health’s chief medical health officer Thursday morning at Royal Jubilee Hospital.
“This is, for me, a time of significant mixed emotion,” Stanwick told media gathered at the hospital’s Begbie Hall on Jan. 27. The hour-long conference was all that could be permitted for the two days’ worth of stories gleaned over a 26-year career in public health, he said.
The University of Manitoba medicine graduate came to Vancouver Island in 1995 to take the job as medical health officer for the Capital Regional District. He was named director of research for the amalgamated Capital Health Region in 1997, then assumed the position of chief medical health officer for what was then the Vancouver Island Health Authority in 2001.
Roots in pediatry (child health) and epidemiology (study of patterns contributing to diseases or injury) drew Stanwick into public health, where he said he could observe both through the fascinating lens of social medicine.
Those observations would lead to historic, national breakthroughs for public health policy. After studying the long-term effects of indoor smoking on the city’s elderly population, Stanwick and his colleagues encouraged Victoria to adopt a Clean Air Bylaw in 1999.
“What we accomplished in the CRD served as a model for places like Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary,” Stanwick said. “This is classic of public health; when one region or city secures a public health gain, we share that knowledge. (The bylaw) was probably one of Victoria’s bigger accomplishments.”
The protection of water catchment lands, located northwest of the City of Victoria and comprising of 20,550 hectares of forest near the Sooke, Goldstream, and Leech watersheds, was another significant landmark of the doctor’s career. There, cleaning standards have given residents of Greater Victoria perhaps the cleanest water in the world, Stanwick said. Peers in Nanaimo, Courtney and Comox have since called for the same level of protection.
Those achievements had always been a team effort, the doctor said, including with those in elected offices. “My job was always to make sure that people who made difficult decisions had the best available evidence at hand to make that decision.” Very often and despite trepidation, he said, it was well-received.
Island Health had, for example, established an emergency operations centre at the genesis of the pandemic, before Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry set up the province’s equivalent. “The significant contributions that (my team) made in B.C., I would argue have made one of the best responses to COVID-19 in Canada, if not North America,” Stanwick said.
In leaving his post, Stanwick hopes the same diligence creates solutions for Island Health’s greatest contemporary challenge, climate change, which he said poses a legitimate threat to the amount of clean water available on the Island.
“As the climate heats up, communities that used to rely on snowpack are finding that it’s disappearing very, very quickly.” Conserving what’s left pristinely could become a huge challenge, he added.
What’s more, excluding the COVID-19 pandemic, the chief medical officer said the heat dome, floods and air quality issues alone made 2021 a “banner year” in his career.
As for retirement, Stanwick plans to take advantage of the natural beauty he said has allowed British Columbians to stay so relatively healthy throughout the pandemic.
“I almost envy the next group (of public health officers). They’ll be facing a whole new group of challenges, but I think they’re up to the task.” What’s important, he said, is communicating with partners at the legislature and in the public. “Public health doesn’t accomplish this on their own.”
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