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Athabasca community sees Dr. Michael J.W. Smith into retirement

Longtime physician takes parting shots at healthcare system as colleagues and officials tip their hats

ATHABASCA – When, after decades in the same work, your personal life and professional life come together at your retirement party, will the stories they tell of you, tell of the same person? 

Dr. Michael J.W. Smith learned the answer to that question Nov. 17, as he was officially welcomed to retirement by family, friends, colleagues old and new, and many of the patients whose loyalty and trust he earned over 43 years in Athabasca and Boyle, and 51 years as a physician in total. 

The Athabasca Healthcare Auxiliary Association, Athabasca Healthcare Staff Association and healthcare centre administration brought well over 100 people who have known Dr. Smith in one way or another together at the Athabasca Seniors Centre last Thursday afternoon to roast, toast and share sometimes heartfelt and sometimes humorous memories and stories of Smith to honour the cherished family man and trusted community doctor and the character they know him to be. 

The stories from his children and those who have worked with him over the years, seemed to line up well, telling of a man committed not only to his job, but to the elevation of his profession as well. Each of the kids had their own stories about their dad, where they recognized the devotion he had to his patients and the long hours he worked as a result.  

Smith’s children Daniel, Fiona, Micaela and Ian were all in attendance to celebrate as a family, along with several grandchildren. The children shared stories of growing up in Boyle and Athabasca with each showing a distinct respect and recognition that their father was a man with responsibilities to his patients and while that may have kept him away from home from segments of their childhood, they each had happy memories from their time together as a family. 

Eldest daughter Fiona said she had memories of her dad coming home as she was going to bed at night and being gone before she was up the next morning. 

“Despite how busy he was as a doctor, he always made time for us,” she said, recalling stories of him sitting through movies like Toy Story, and teaching her to drive a stick, at 12. “It was very bumpy; it was not a smooth road. I think it's the worst way to teach a 12-year-old to drive. I still cannot drive stick shift, but he did make time for us, and I will be forever thankful for that.” 

“My dad is really, really passionate about his work. I know this from growing up. He's really passionate about helping patients and making sure they are taken care of. Growing up. He was always trying to find a solution to a problem and that meant helping patients the best way that he could,” said Ian, the youngest of the four. 

“Growing up, dad was very busy man,” said third child and youngest daughter Micaela. “Yes, we very much understood that what he was doing was very important and had a lot of respect for him growing up. As a kid, my fondest memories were going to the hospital and colouring with highlighters on the office notepads and visiting the patients and I would even play chess with some of the patients and develop close bonds with them.” 

Smith, ever-stoic, seated beside wife Evelyn, fiddled with his notes and checked his phone a few times, but eventually cracked a smile as he faced the genuine admiration of doctors, nurses and others from the local medical community, past and current, like Dr. Leon Berger, Dr. Adrianus Mol and retired nurse Sandy Haley, each who go back decades with Smith. 

Dr. Berger gave a quick history of Smith’s journey as a doctor from England to Churchill, Manitoba, to Boyle where he met his second wife Evelyn, and then to Athabasca. 

“Mike, thank you for what you’ve done, it’s no joke,” said Berger. “Mike and I had a few headbutts along the way and we’re none the worse for it, I think, but the most amazing thing about Mike is that a day later, he would act like nothing happened, he would just let it go.” 

Haley shared several stories about working with Smith at the Athabasca Healthcare Centre since he came from Boyle in 1994, ranging from his trademark suspenders and foghorn ringtone to his coffee infatuation and penchant for photocopies to his apparent imperviousness to cold weather. 

“Dr. Smith did his share of being on call for the hospital emergency department and for every patient that came in, he would always have to assess them. Then they were given a map to his office along with his and Evelyn's personal phone numbers. He was always kind and caring for his patients and often would go out of his way to help them,” she said. 

Athabasca County reeve Brian Hall and Town of Athabasca deputy mayor Sara Graling also passed on words on gratitude and congratulations to Smith on behalf of the municipalities, along with Gerry Kiselyk, in his role as chair of the Regional Health Care Attraction and Retention Committee (RHCARC). 

“One doesn't have to look very far to see how many lives you've touched. Whether it's patients who are grateful for your help and understanding; the people who remember your availability and willingness to see residents despite the already heavy workload that has been alluded to by your children today; the people who recall quick actions when it was very much needed or those who just found everything they were looking for in their doctor, these are qualities we should take for granted in a small town or in a region where doctors are often in short supply,” said Hall. 

“Dr. Smith has impacted generations of families in the area from start of life, to end of life, and all life in between. For a small, rural community to have a doctor commit essentially all of his professional years of practice is something we should express a deep gratitude for,” said Graling. “I've talked with community members to better understand the impact of Dr. Smith's practice and I've heard many thoughtful comments on your knowledge, your thoroughness, your diligence, and your capacity for great referrals when needed; comments with respect to your kindness and your caring for seniors were shared a lot with me in particular and I know many in this room can attest to the trust and the comfort that you've provided through your listening, attention, knowledge and compassion.” 

Smith thanked all of them for their kind words and for coming to see him into retirement. 

“I'd like to thank all of my patients, quite a number of whom are here today, for trusting me to look after them. And sorry for those I didn’t quite manage to help,” he quipped, as only a man who deals with life and death on a daily basis can. 

“I’d like to thank my wife Evelyn, for being nubile, and for her tireless support, including personal support, managing the business side, looking after the finances and lots of other kinds of paperwork. You wouldn't believe how much there is," he continued, going on to thank his clinic partners and the rest of the local medical community. 

Not known for being particularly shy about expressing his feelings on a variety of topics, Smith put a cherry on top of the gathering, taking the opportunity to publicly castigate Alberta Health Services for the state of healthcare in the Athabasca region and Alberta in general, and to scorn Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken, with what was either British, medical, or a wit all his own. 

While the MLA sent regrets for not being able to attend and words of congratulations for the retiring doctor, saying a plaque to honour Smith was also on its way to recognize his service to the region, Smith wasn’t compelled to return any kind words or thanks for the recognition from the Alberta government. 

“I already thought of a place, we have a small room in the house where I think it will look great,” he said before moving on to those responsible for the depressing state of healthcare, regionally, and provincewide. 

“Healthcare in Alberta has been starved to death and something's got to be done about it,” he said, relating a recent interaction he had with a high-level AHS official who told him everybody was responsible for the current state of healthcare in Alberta, and even though he was initially outraged by the notion, he came to understand that all members of society are responsible for what we find ourselves in, whether it’s the doctors, the bureaucrats, or the patients. 

Smith recalled a survey he asked his patients to fill out several years ago that asked only if they thought there were enough doctors in Athabasca. To his absolute astonishment, he found many said there were. 

“So guys, you’ve got to shape up and make some noise. Yes, we do need more doctors and you want to make that clear to the government. It is your job to make them aware. If you don't want to know who's responsible for the lack of doctors and nurses and so on, go look in the mirror, I'm sorry, but that's the way it is,” he said. 

He used the idea of a frog instantly jumping out of a pail of hot water, while it will continue to swim and eventually die in a pail of water that is gradually heated, as a metaphor for the healthcare system, and how far it has deteriorated since he came to Boyle. 

“Now, things are absolutely terrible compared to that. If at that time, the system would have suddenly deteriorated, then people would have been up in arms, but it has gone down so slowly that people have gotten used to not having proper care and nothing is going to change until people start marching and protesting and that kind of thing. So make a fuss guys, get some fire in your belly,” he said as he signed off. 

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