In imagining where a pivotal career might begin, a ramshackled bar on the side of a cratered Ugandan highway is probably not what comes to mind.
For Dr. Richard Heinzl, however, it was on such a roadside by the Kenyan-Ugandan border where he first encountered a group of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) physicians – an experience that ultimately led him to establish the Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian relief organization, Doctors Without Borders Canada.
On Wednesday, Oct. 19, Heinzl visited McMaster at an event hosted by the McMaster Global Health Committee of McMaster Medical School.
Heinzl recounted his decision to take an elective in a rural Kenyan hospital after completing his first year. “I worked there for about three weeks and it was great,” a down-to-earth Heinzl told the group of ambitious students.
“But Kenya was actually a pretty prosperous country at that time. And right next door was Uganda, which was not doing well at all.”
As an idealistic 22-year-old, he ventured to Uganda, with merely a VISA, passport and name of a Canadian contact in hand. It was not long after that a truck filled with a high-spirited group of MSF workers approached. Heinzl recalled, “That’s when I fell in love with the organization.”
Three years after graduating, Heinzl, moved by his experience overseas, succeeded in founding the Canadian chapter of the international medical relief organization. Though he has now served in more than 80 countries threatened by public health emergencies, Heinzl is in no rush to settle down, explaining new initiatives underway within the organization.
Heinzl further explained the unique approach he takes in his work, noting that many projects conducted by previous groups have failed to involve the community or utilize findings to meaningfully improve the lives of the people.
He credited the Internet as a valuable tool in international aid. “The Internet is a treasure. It connects people with the rest of the world,” said Heinzl, noting the rise of the cellular phone.
Currently, 80 per cent of the population has access to a cell phone. “Cell phones give people access to information, which is just as important for health as are antibiotics or C-sections, for example,” said Heizl.
In fact, Heinzl recalled “dreaming up” the usefulness of cell phones and the Internet many years ago while working in remote areas. “You cannot simply go out into the hall to get a consultation from your colleagues when there are virtually no other doctors in the country.”
He added that “it is breathtaking to inquire what lies ahead,” regarding the future of globalized medicine.
Before concluding, Heinzl extended the dialogue to students, showing a genuine fascination with their experiences in international health.
“If I can share one lesson with you, it would be to follow what you love. Any one of you can dream up a country you want to go to, or an idea that you want to make happen, or a program that you want to create.”
After all, he said, “there is a world waiting for you.”