As the child of immigrant parents, I learned early in life that doctors are to be respected. That meant doctors’ orders were to be followed and if a prescription were given for whatever ailed you that meant you believed it would heal your health issue.
I recall Dr. East, Dr. McRitchie and Dr. Baerg having their clinic in the building that’s now the Rooftop Coffee shop. Back in that day those doctors were on call 24/7, they made house calls and they wore suits. It is no wonder people put them on a pedestal, but imagine how difficult life for doctors and their families must have been with endless commitment and constant interruption.
Times have changed since then and today there is a much better system that allows doctors to have a more balanced life that does include time to do activities other than the work of caring for the sick. One thing that has not changed though is the caring heart of our local physicians, one who is recently retiring.
Fernie was fortunate to have Dr. Ron Clark and wife Cathy move here from Saskatchewan. The two of them were a striking couple, Ron with his good looks and beautiful Cathy with her long, blonde locks. Ron with his passion for caring for patients and Cathy with her passion for animals. Caring for the sick whether animal or human was amazing to witness. To many of us living in this small mining town, that was Fernie in the late seventies, the two of them seemed most glamorous.
Dr. Ron Clark was born in Saskatoon, the oldest of two sons, to a father who was a professor of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan and who Ron says was adamant that his son was attending university and going to be a professional. His mother died when he was a child leaving his dad to raise his sons alone with the help of their grandmother who Ron says was a powerful influence in his life. He was intelligent and academically gifted in all subjects in school and could have been successful in whatever field he chose but decided on medicine. He attended Evan Hardy Collegiate during high school and then studied at the University of Saskatchewan.
Near the end of medical school, he and a classmate happened to run into his friend’s brother who had been producing a play that was ending that evening and encouraged them to attend a party celebrating the end of the play. It turned out Cathy’s friends had brought her and to the same party that is how they met, they connected right away and married in June of 1976.
Ron worked in Moose Jaw for two years however did not enjoy city living. Cathy worked as a tour guide and on one of her tours to Hawaii he decided to tag along. He spent a month on Waikiki beach and the trip almost convinced him to work in Hawaii. Then on a ski holiday to Banff they made a stop in Fernie knowing the Sparling East clinic was looking for doctors. He connected with Dr. East who invited them to stay at his home during the visit. Dr. East introduced him to the individuals he would be working with, but he said the hook was that he could go skiing every day during lunch, something he did do almost every day. Ron commented, “you work hard, play hard and enjoy life.”
Ron and Cathy moved to Fernie in 1979 and had two daughters who were raised here. Alicia is an artist and electrician working on her journeyman papers and the one responsible for the beautiful artwork on the Miners Walk banners. Jamie is a registered massage therapist who lives in Vernon.
There are few outdoor sports he hasn’t experienced including mountaineering, ice climbing, wall climbing, building kayaks and paddling the Elk, Wigwam, and Bull rivers, and biking every bike trail in the area and beyond. Ron commented, “I did everything I could do in the mountains except shoot animals”. Paragliding was another love, it was his dream of flying, soaring like a bird, it was a magical time spent paragliding off Morrissey Ridge and in Columbia, Mexico and Brazil. Asked if there were any frightening times he responded, “several times when the canopy collapsed and you are falling to the ground and you know it might not go so well, but the reality is that you have to prepare yourself, if you are going to live on the edge, you have to go into it prepared for everything that could go wrong. Whitewater in the river, being held upside down in a kayak was the most stressful experience, scary, you have to be mentally prepared, the routine meshes well with doing difficult medical procedures.”
Asked about Covid Ron commented, “every person in the world had challenges, it was difficult for staff with much soul searching but no more so than for those working in other fields such as restaurants. Life changes, it’s been a really hard year, when one’s own positivity goes down with cases going from one to two a week to 100 a week”. Ron said that it was particularly difficult having Interior Health contradict the Covid statements he made with the Fernie Chamber interview. He said that was the deciding moment he determined to quit practicing medicine. “I was done”. Fernie’s citizens were enraged at IH’s treatment of a much loved and respected doctor. Later IH shifted their false contradiction proving Ron was correct with his numbers and CBC media, who had been pushed incorrect information by IH, called Ron and apologized.
I’m reminded of the days when he and others fought against the cutbacks at the then Fernie Hospital. The hospital frequently faced the threat of closure with the operating room and other services. “I was proud of our community and how they stepped up to fight for our little hospital” he says. Along with private practice Ron was the anesthesiologist and served as Chief of Staff at the hospital for over a dozen years.
Alanna Corrigan RN BCN and Home Care Nurse Case Manager said she met Dr. Clark as a new doctor when she was 16 and in emergency. She had suffered an accident where her elbow literally bent in the opposite direction with the bone hanging by a thread resulting in being in a cast for eight weeks. She said she received exceptionally good care. “He is the kind of doctor that made you feel special and made patients feel respected and heard, that he truly listened.” Her late mom Della Malone, a nurse in the local hospital for decades told her many times that he was an excellent baby doctor”, although he took care of people of all ages. Alanna adds that he has a great smile and most of all “he lives our community, you can see him riding his bike to work or skiing on the hill”.
I recall bringing my Brandon to see him after he had a serious surgical procedure at just a few months old necessitating a five week stay at the Children’s Hospital in Calgary. Dr. Clark provided great care then and until Brandon was 21 and moved to Alberta. Brandon now 26, has fond memories of his doctor who he describes as always being “kind, never pushy or in a rush, he gave time and care. He always understood how I was feeling, always asked how I was and really listened and tried to help, he was just a really nice guy”.
When they moved to Fernie everyone became acquainted with Cathy and her love and work with animals. She spent time doing pet therapy and pet education teaching kids canine behaviour, how not to get bitten and educating kids to be kind to animals. She was awarded Volunteer of the Year for her work with extended Care at the hospital, the Tom Uphill Home and Rocky Mountain Village. She loves people and animals and believes in being kind to everyone, always sticking up for the underdog be it human or animal. Today she has dogs and cats, a little pony, two miniature donkeys and a bunny. She also is proficient in spinning, weaving and making jewelry. Asked about what it was like being a doctor’s wife, she replied “I support Ron in everything, Ron is wonderful and gets better and better every day.”
Congratulations on your retirement Dr. Clark, you have contributed a great deal to this community in your 42 years. We thank you for the attention and love directed towards the many patients you cared for and wish you all the best in the future. We are glad you are choosing to remain in this community and look forward to seeing you riding your bike around town.