Dr. Henry Ukpeh wasn’t just looking for a job back in ’93. He was looking to make a difference in a community that was in great need of a doctor to care for its children.
That is why the general pediatrician chose Trail to open his practice two decades ago.
Thankfully he did – today there’s an entire generation that has grown from infancy into healthy young adults because of his expert care. And they most likely remember his wide grin, distinctive laugh and of course, the cherry popsicles given post appointment.
After 20 years of providing exemplary service for Kootenay Boundary’s youngest members, the doctor waved good bye to B.C. in June and is heading to work in Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
Before leaving the city, the Trail Times asked Dr. Ukpeh (himself once a Trail Times columnist) to reflect how pediatric care has evolved in the region since he first arrived at the doors of Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital (KBRH).
“Professionally, my mindset in taking the position in Trail was that I wanted to go where children needed a pediatrician rather than just looking for a job,” he said, mentioning he passed on positions in New Westminster, Calgary, Timmins Ont. and Brantford, Ont.
“Trail fit the criteria at the time because it had a high turnover of pediatricians and had been without one for two years prior to my arrival.”
He said the challenge was to initiate and build a service, not just for Trail but also for surrounding communities.
“One had to cope with the isolation factor and get the attention of BC Children’s Hospital by bringing awareness to the needs of children in the area,” explained the doctor. “By most accounts we seem to have succeeded.”
When Dr. Ukpeh first began treating children out of his KBRH office, he says the topical issue was lead poisoning in children and environmental contamination.
“I saw myself primarily as an advocate for the health needs of children in the area,” he recalled.
“Everything that constituted an obstacle to their wellbeing became a challenge that had to be addressed. So I got involved in areas beyond the provision of clinical services which would be the natural inclination of a doctor.”
He collaborated with the Trail Community Lead Task Force (now the multifaceted Trail Health and Environment Committee), and was part of a research project that demonstrated the relationship between age, development and lead levels in children.
“I presented the findings at the BC Paediatric Society conference in Vancouver and for most attendants that was the first time they became aware of Trail” he said, noting cases of lead poisoning are much fewer today, the environment has improved significantly and trees are growing again.
During his first years of practice, Dr. Ukpeh became aware that parents had difficulty bringing their children to Vancouver for specialist care. So he helped the community form the Kootenay Friends of Children Foundation to assist families with travel-related expenses.
The foundation was run entirely by the people of Trail, he clarified, referring to the role it played in Christmas parties, community outreach for preventative children’s health and flying critically ill children to larger centres. “All of this was made possible by the incredible kindness of the people of Trail. They (foundation) organized and executed all the events and I remember them all by name.”
Another way he accessed care for children with complex medical needs was to pluck specialists from urban settings and bring them to the regional hospital.
“I tried to get sub-specialists, world-renowned individuals like Dr. Farrell and Dr. Paterson to run clinics out of Trail,” he explained. “The first time I brought up the idea was over dinner, they thought I had too much to drink,” Ukpeh joked.
But his persistence paid off and both physicians did end up travelling to Trail and ran clinics, he added.
Efforts to forge a closer relationship with BC Children’s Hospital also came to fruition over the years as medical students and post graduate doctors trained under Dr. Ukpeh’s mentorship.
“People opened their homes to medical and postgraduate students who came here to study,” he said. “They were helpful in letting young doctors study on their children, and they would patiently spend long hours in clinic to make that happen – at times having to repeat history of the illness several times.”
After 20 years of improving pediatric care while establishing clear lines of communication for management of sick children, the doctor says new arrivals may find the role somewhat easier.
“Now there is a recognized service for children with a team of doctors dedicated to their care,” he said. “The infrastructure for the care of children is well established.”
During a recent interview, Dr. Ukpeh was asked by someone reviewing his resume to list three ways he functioned in a small community for so long.
For all three reasons he wrote, “The people of Trail.”
“First, I am a black man in a predominantly white community in the “middle of nowhere,” he said. “They made me feel welcome,” the pediatrician continued. “I recall a grandma who brought me coconut cookies each time her beautiful grandchildren came to see me.”
He mentioned all the local groups and businesses who supported the Trail pediatric program through fundraising including the city’s backing with free use of the Cominco gym for many children’s’ gatherings.
“When one of my patients was going to have a heart transplant, the community rallied,” he noted. “Various members of the community constructed the modern pediatric and maternity ward mainly from donations. From Australia to North America I know of several communities. When it comes to support for the children, they have nothing on Trail.”
Finally, the doctor said he will not forget all the children he cared for over the years, though he often doesn’t recognize many patients, now grown.
“They usually walk up to me and say,” Do you remember me?” he explained. “I would say, “of course, how can I forget, you peed on me when you were a baby!”
He then recalled one patient, a little girl who was critically ill.
“After I had spoken with specialists in Canada and the United States and done all I could, I felt so helpless and so lonely that privately, I prayed and cried.”
Recently, Dr. Ukpeh ran into the girl’s father who said she is now a young lady, living on her own with a job and was just taken off all her medications after 10 years.
“My soul bowed in gratitude to the most high,” he said. “What perhaps has changed most is that people are more aware of the uniqueness of children. They know children are not small adults – they are individuals in their own right.
“They are as different from adults as caterpillars are to butterflies.”
With files from Liz Bevan