This is a typical day in ‘retirement’ for Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull. He is up early and drives to an Ottawa shelter to offer treatment for scores of homeless people. Then he drives to another shelter or one of the city’s supportive transition homes to greet and treat residents there. In between, he and his team of social workers, addiction counsellors and other health-care providers visit others who are struggling on the street or living rough under bridges or in overgrown fields.
Turnbull knows their medical and mental afflictions and their addictions. More importantly, he knows their names and their stories. “They are like family,” he says.
He has an armload of titles that include having been chief of staff at The Ottawa Hospital and past president of both the Canadian Medical Association and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
But as a doctor and human, he considers this his best work. “Of all the things I have done in my career, this gives me the most joy.”
On Friday, Turnbull – founder and medical director of Ottawa’s Inner City Health Project – will be awarded an honorary doctorate from Western during the first of 20 spring convocation ceremonies that celebrate Western’s newest graduates.
Turnbull will address the newest graduates of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry during morning convocation on June 3, the first in-person graduation ceremonies at Western since the pandemic.
Approximately 8,000 graduating students will convocate this spring and will join more than 330,000 Western alumni from more than 160 countries.
Turnbull has been where these graduates are. He completed an internal medicine residency at Western in 1982 and earned a master’s degree in education in 1990.
“I want to say to them, ‘You have an obligation. You have a pact with society to improve people’s lives and that includes the most vulnerable among us, whether they’re homeless, struggling with addiction and mental health, or have disabilities or live in rural and remote areas. You have to meet this obligation. Show kindness.’”
Turnbull began working with homeless and vulnerable people while he was with The Ottawa Hospital and retired from there in 2017 to work full-time with people experiencing homelessness. Each week, he and his team directly serve approximately half of Ottawa’s homeless populace.
He is preoccupied with two things: treating those who live – and sometimes die – with addiction, mental health issues, physical health problems and homelessness; and preventing all of the above.
“The goal has to be drawn along the line of primary prevention, understanding and addressing those factors that lead people on a trajectory to homelessness. If you can address that, you’re saving a world of heartache.”
He cited poverty, inequities in early childhood education, and a reduction in social and family supports, as factors in homelessness and addiction; so are unaffordable housing, unemployment and underemployment.
“We need to start to reset this. If you make this just an argument about economics … you have to understand that we can’t afford this either. There’s a whole generation of people who are going to cost an enormous amount.”
His passion, street-level understanding and advocacy have earned him respect among his colleagues, the community of people experiencing homelessness, and agencies working to help them. That, and the connections he made while he was a hospital executive, provide added credibility among policy-makers.
New graduates from medical school are eager to make a difference, he said, but sometimes life and bureaucracy wear them down. “They can lose some of those values, that sense of service. I want to remind them they’re already at the stage where they can change the world, and to feed that part of their lives and careers.”
Western’s spring 2022 convocation dates run from June 3 to 24. Here is a list of faculty/school convocation dates and respective recipients of honorary degrees:
- June 3 – morning – Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry: Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull
- June 13 – afternoon – Faculty of Education: Madeleine Kētēskwew Dion Stout
- June 14 – morning – Social Science: Sally Armstrong // afternoon – Science: David Saint-Jacques (virtual)
- June 15 – morning – Social Science // afternoon – Social Science: Subir Chowdhury
- June 16 – morning – Schulich and Science: Robin Poole // afternoon – Science: Raymond Carroll
- June 17 – morning – Engineering, Schulich and Science graduate degrees: Patrick Gullane // afternoon – Engineering – undergraduate: Arun Mujumdar
- June 20 – morning – Arts & Humanities, Music: Shelley Ambrose // afternoon – Brescia, Huron University Colleges: Regna Darnell
- June 21 – morning – Ivey Business // afternoon – Health Sciences: Alwyn Morris
- June 22 – morning – Ivey Business, graduate degrees: Gillian Kernahan // afternoon – Kings University College
- June 23 – morning – Schulich and Health Sciences: Danielle Martin // afternoon – Information & Media Studies: John Davidson
- June 24 – morning – Health Sci, Law: Tony Dagnone // afternoon – Kings: Perry Dellelce