Dr. Ron Clark, who has practiced as a family doctor in Fernie for over 40 years and most recently served as the Chief of Staff at the Elk Valley Hospital, retired last month. Something he admits came earlier than anticipated but is welcomed with open arms. An avid adventurer… of all things, he is ready to spend time doing the things he loves and to continue to learn new things… like golf. Surprising to even him!
Originally from Saskatoon, Ron admits he was a true prairie boy. “The first time I saw a mountain was on a family holiday in Banff when I was around ten!” Ron was focused on a profession in medicine, even though at the time he was quite passionate about football and was even recruited to play in the States. “I choose to go pre-med and right into medical school. Then I interned, went to work and just never stopped. What a good move that was, it’s been a wonderful career,” he tells me.
Ron choose to intern in New York City, and then Flint, Michigan. “You couldn’t beat the American, big city run hospitals for medical experience. Back then, you learned more in a week than you would in ten years in a Canadian hospital!” he shares, adding that it also taught him to appreciate Canada. After his time in Flint, Ron and his wife, Cathy moved back to Canada and settled in Moosejaw, where Cathy is from. Typical in small-town Canada, Ron was offered a job while attending a wedding. “I worked there for two years. It didn’t take long to get fed up with their winters!” They were spending substantial time in Hawaii, Cathy working as a tour guide and Ron getting a license to practice emergency medicine, when a ski trip de-railed their plans.
“We were skiing in Banff and saw a bunch of job offers in Fernie, so we stopped on our way back to Moosejaw. We spent the weekend with the Easts and had a great time. They toured us around the hill, held a couple of parties… and this is where we ended up moving to!”
Their plan was two years, 42 later they’re still here. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have much imagination, but it’s a great place to raise a family. The increase in trails and recreation, arts and culture, and passion for making it really diverse sets it apart,” Ron says.
Ron remembers when Interior Health Authority began and was implementing changes, our community dug in its heels and fought to keep the Fernie hospital open. “The community and medical staff fought for a dozen years, now the pendulum has swung back and we’re trying to maintain and nourish what we have. To provide services so people can have babies in Fernie and minor surgical procedures. Where medical staff want to work and be happy. Fernie offers a great balance of recreational and family life for family doctors and specialists,” Ron tells me.
“When I moved here in 1979, there were four of us to start with, then there were six. We were all starting fairly new and young with Sparling East. And we pretty much did everything... I always liked doing maternity, seeing the children grow from birth, getting big, having their own families. It makes you smile and happy.”
Ron believes our community has a sustainable pool of physicians and that we can continue along this path and grow. “This gives me great comfort. There were about two projects important to me, one was making sure there was sustainability in staff, the other was ultrasound in the valley.”
While both of these have been achieved, ultrasound just last fall, this last year has been especially challenging as a health care provider.
“It’s been a really difficult year to work. Those first months when we really didn’t know what was going on or how to manage it. Going to meetings every day plus clinical work, having to look after hurt and sick people not knowing if you would get sick. That was tough. Then the paranoia about vaccinations, COVID isn’t real, and not wearing masks while attending to people who are really ill and not going to survive. I find it disturbing.”
As the Chief of Staff, Ron was asked to speak at weekly Fernie Chamber of Commerce meetings and to provide a report. “It was a good opportunity to connect with the people and businesses in our community who were making big sacrifices and suffering,” he says. “In January, we went from one new case a week to 70 all at once. The testing rates were really high, and I shared this at the meeting. It got shared with media across the province, and our administrators contradicted what I said. Then four or five days later, they declared Fernie an outbreak.”
Ron admits that this pushed him towards retirement more than anything. While he received an on-air apology on CBC, it was the hate mail and social media messages that were the toughest on Ron. Even when he knew his sharing of real-time information helped our community jump into action at a pivotal time.
“I was inundated with terrible messages, it was nasty. I have a lot of sympathy for people who are in the media all of the time and take a lot of criticism and hate. It was discouraging and demoralizing, and I was in complete shock.”
Now, a few weeks into retirement and one month to go before passing on the Chief of Staff torch, Ron views his active medical life as over.
“Every week that goes by it becomes easier to accept. Perhaps in the future I might do locums or fill in jobs, but for now I’m really, really happy that we have such a great group of experienced, young and starting out family doctors who just love the challenge and diversity of rural primary care and medicine. We have people who want to deliver babies, emergency care, a viable hospital and everybody that is here wants to be here for the lifestyle Fernie provides. I hope I led by example as that was always my philosophy.”
Ron and Cathy still love living in Fernie, “as long as I’m physically able to shovel snow and look after our little acreage!” Their kids are slowly making their way back home, which also helps and makes it easier. And is golf fulfilling to this multi-faceted adventurer? “Yes! It’s the first sport I didn’t have to sign a waiver to do!” Year-round, you will find Ron riding his bike, and in winter ski touring. “Skiing was the hook that got me here,” he confesses.
Thank you, Ron. For your service and dedication to the health of the community, and your continued adventurous inspiration.
1. When did you first arrive in the Valley and what brought you here?
We moved to Fernie in May of 1979 and lived in one of those apartments across from the hospital. I used wake up in the middle of the night as was on call, and walk over to emergency when the Motor Inn had done last call and the fights would be over.
2. Who did you first meet?
Sparling and Mary East.
3. Do you remember your first general impression of Fernie?
Oh ya, I just loved the mountains, the Lizard Range and the Three Sisters. Seeing the snow on the mountains in spring. The river… all just magical for a prairie boy.
4. What keeps you here?
After 40 years, it’s still a beautiful place to live. It’s been a wonderful, challenging, rewarding place to work. I’ve travelled pretty much everywhere and it’s hard to beat.
5. Do you have a favourite Fernie pastime?
6. What time of the year do you love most in Fernie, and why?
I love all four seasons and the change of seasons, but spring is my favourite. You can ski in the morning, paddle the river in the afternoon and bike at night. Especially now with the South Country, it’s like going to a different country! The Elk Rim – man! Talk about something that has caught on. Silver Springs Rim Trail… just beautiful.
7. Where do you see or hope to see Fernie in five years?
Fernie’s going to be like it is now, with a lot more people recreating in our little paradise and we have to get used to it and embrace it and use it to diversify and make an even better trail network. I used to hike up Mount Proctor behind my house without seeing another person. Now you’re lucky not to see 100!
8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals?
I’m a big breakfast person. I love to wake up and have a cup of green tea and breakfast and then plan the day which always includes feeding my wife’s barn animals and taking the dog for a walk.
9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you.
When I moved to Fernie, I had hair that went all the way to my shoulders, would rock the unicycle and juggle all at the same time.
10. Quote to live by: We do not stop playing because we are old, we get old because we stop playing!