For most Canadians, John McCrae is primarily a poet, the medical officer who wrote In Flanders Fields following the death of a friend and fellow soldier at the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915.
For physicians – particularly those who like McCrae, who were both doctors and medical officers in the Canadian Forces – his name personifies the zenith of the profession, said Dr. Vivian McAlister, a recently retired Army surgeon and Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor.
As the 2019 recipient of the Canadian Medical Association’s John McCrae Memorial Medal, McAlister is especially honoured to be simultaneously recognized and associated with an award that bears the name of the famed physician, solider and poet.
“It is a great honour to be chosen for any award, but an award named for John McCrae has special significance to me. He is very special in Canadian history and medical history,” McAlister said.
“For a medical officer in the Canadian Forces, he represents the pinnacle of our activity in that he was consumed by his desire to aid soldiers injured in combat, putting himself at risk as necessary, being as close to the line of combat and giving them immediate care.”
The CMA John McCrae Memorial Medal is awarded to current or former clinical health services personnel of the Canadian Armed Forces for exemplary service demonstrating traits such as compassion, self-sacrifice and innovation beyond the call of duty which greatly benefited the health or welfare of fellow military personnel or civilian populations.
In conferring this award on McAlister, the Canadian Medical Association recognizes his dedication on his multiple tours in Afghanistan, his compassion and his professionalism.
McCrae’s life represents a sense of sacrifice, McAlister noted, and Canadians are often unaware of the many accomplishments of the specialist physician who worked in Canada and the United States prior to serving in the First World War. He was highly trained, published dozens of papers and co-authered a textbook of pathology. McCrae would have been a prominent physician in Canada had he lived; he left all behind to volunteer once the war broke out and died of pneumonia near the end of the war.
“He personifies everything you would like to think about in terms of the requirements of a good medical officer in the Canadian Forces,” said McAlister, who worked as a surgeon specializing in liver and transplantation surgeries prior to serving in Afghanistan.
“I had a full career as a surgeon at University Hospital; that was my life before Afghanistan. The experience in Afghanistan changed that completely. I didn’t stop doing my work as a surgeon and academic. But it put it in a different context.”
In Afghanistan, McAlister learned techniques for caring for injured soldiers and dealing with patients with severe injuries from combat. At home, he was able to apply newly learned methods in transplantation, improving outcomes of difficult surgeries.
“I was able to apply practical experience from Afghanistan to patients here and vice versa. When I went overseas I was able to adapt experiences I had from here to combat; there was back-and-forth virtualization. That’s how it changed my professional career,” he said.
A changed perspective towards both his professional and civilian life is another matter altogether.
“Serving (in a war) puts life in context for you. First and most important thing, you see how fortunate you are. As a physician, you are in a privileged situation. When I was overseas with military colleagues, they still protect physicians and care for us. I watched the soldiers in combat and I didn’t have to risk what they had to risk. So I came to understand what they were doing better,” McAlister explained.
“I experienced what the locals are going through. You think, how fortunate we are in Canada to live in a peaceful and wealthy country, when you watch life being destroyed. All those supports for a happy life are removed by violence and disturbance. When you see the fabric of society falling away, you see how lucky we are to have it.”
McAlister could have retired from the Canadian Forces three years ago, at the age of 60. He stayed on for an extra three years, and retired just last month.
“I spent 11 years in uniform. I am gratified that I had the opportunity to work with a fantastic team, to contribute to the development of that team, to be able to lead its renewal as a new generation takes over. I’m very pleased with the competence and dedication of the military medical team I am retiring from,” he said.