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Doctor Remembered Fondly

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A motorcycle riding physician with big hands and an even bigger heart – that’s how many people in both Thompson and Swan River described the late Dr. Alan Douglas Rich following his death on Jan. 21.
In many online forums, as well as services in both communities, former patients and friends paid their respects to a man that dedicated his entire life to the medical field and was a doctor like no other that most people would ever encounter.
Alan was born in Brighton, England – a seaside resort town south of London – on Feb. 28, 1945. His father was a Canadian soldier serving in the final months of the Second World War and his mother was a war bride. The family relocated to rural Saskatchewan when he was an infant, residing near the communities of Stoughton, Yellow Grass and Creelman.
Although he came from a very poor family, Alan was a hard worker and had intelligence on his side. While working in the food services industry – cleaning dishes and washing floor – he put himself through school at the University of Saskatchewan, first earning a Baccalaureate in Liberal Arts and a Bachelor of Science before graduating from the school’s College of Medicine in 1971 as a Doctor of Medicine.
He would go on to complete his residency at Queen Elizabeth hospital in Montreal but, on breaks, Alan would travel to Thompson by motorcycle to work in the mine, making as much money as he could to fund his education.
“I met Dr. Rich in Montreal before he finished his training and went back to Thompson,” Sharon Piett recalled in one of the reflections. “I came to emergency with a broken foot and no money. He was on duty. The hospital told me that they would not accept my Manitoba medical as payment because Manitoba didn’t pay their bills. Dr. Rich said that he would put the cast on my foot and pay for it himself if he had to. He said that working at INCO for my dad, George Piett, in Thompson had made it possible for him to be a doctor. He was a great compassionate person.”
So, after completing his training, it was natural for Alan to go back to the community that had treated him so well, this time to setup his own practice.
“He would practice medicine for more than four decades, making him the longest serving and most beloved doctor in the history of Thompson,” said Thompson MLA Kelly Bindle in a Private Members Statement at the Legislature last month.
“Over the course of his career he worked as a general practitioner, in cancer care, was an anesthetist, oversaw dialysis, worked as a medical examiner, served as team physician for the Thompson Hawks hockey team and was a Judo instructor.
Hundreds of stories have come out following Alan’s passing – reflecting on how he had saved so many of his patient’s lives and other’s on how he had a profound impact on their future.
John Barker summed up these tributes in his obituary for Alan as follows:
“Alan Rich was the most unorthodox doctor they ever met. And the most loyal to his patients. If they missed an office appointment, he was very likely to show up at their house later the same evening, roaring up their driveway on his motorcycle, clad in leather jacket, boots and jeans, to check up on them. And maybe (unofficially, of course), to tend to a family pet, too, while he was there.”
“(He was) one of the hardest working men that Thompson has ever seen,” said Leona Mayer, a longtime Thompson resident. “He would go down into the mine when no one else would. He would tend the sick and injured wherever they were: in the hospital or in the cells. Controversial? Yes but not afraid to stick to his guns if he felt there was a wrong to be righted.”
It was “sticking to his guns” that lead Alan to leave Thompson after 40 years of practice and setup shop in Swan River in 2011 following a high-profile dispute with two other doctors in the health region. Establishing an office in Town he was also granted hospital privileges although he continued to travel back up north to see patients at his private practice in Thompson as well.
While working in the Valley he was recognized twice for his contributions to the northern medical community. The first was on April 9, 2013 when he was presented the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal by former Swan River Mayor Glen McKenzie and former Prairie Mountain Health Board vice-chair Harry Showdra on behalf of Community Development in Thompson.
“In Thompson, I was on the wrong side of political decisions, but I am a doctor with no limitations,” Alan had said when he was presented with the honour.
He also discussed his time in the Valley so far, adding, “This is a very good place. I retired here, and I will spend the rest of my days here I think.”
The following year things were made right in Thompson when he was awarded the infrequently bestowed Key to the City of Thompson in recognition to his long commitment and dedication to the people of the city.
“Outside of medicine, Dr. Rich’s two best known hobbies were being an avid motorcycle rider and old truck and car restoring enthusiast, and a judo sensei,” Barker also wrote in his reflection.
“While motorcycles, old cars and trucks and judo were all passions with Dr. Rich, less well known is that he was an avid conservationist, buying parcels of land across the country in his own very personal contribution to preserving wildlife and wildlife habitat.”
The countless stories of Alan going above and beyond the call of duty, visiting patients well beyond office hours are plenty, one reflection perhaps sums up his dedication the most.
“I always appreciated his honest, straight forward, no BS approach to medical care,” said one of his Swan Valley patients. “One late afternoon, I managed to sneak in the door of his office, and was surprised to get an appointment to see him right then. I asked Dr. Rich what time he finished up in the evening. His response was, “When I’ve seen the last patient of the day.” Simple as that.”
Even in the last few years of his life when his health started to fail him you could still find Alan making every effort to get to his office and make sure his patients were served to the best of his ability.
“His motto was ‘to do more good than harm’,” concluded Bindle in his statement. “Dr. Rich was a plain spoken, humble and caring man with big hands and a bigger heart.”