I have been thinking a lot about the vagaries of life and the things that have influenced me in my life. I have come to realize how many of my decisions have been influenced by those who have inspired and challenged me in some way. I think we all have things and people who have inspired us or who have propelled us in a particular direction in our lives, or careers.
One of the most influential people in my life involves a family – a son who tragically died at the age of 19 and his father who turned that tragedy into a lifetime of commitment to change the world to prevent this from happening to anyone else. Let me tell you the story of how Sean and Paul changed my life.
It was a dark and dreary November day and I was just starting my shift, assigned to incoming burn patients, in the Ross Tilley burn unit. I was covering for someone and I didn’t want to be there and was beyond grumpy. That was all about to change. It was quiet in the unit so I headed to get a coffee in the dark and depressing basement cafeteria at the hospital. My pager (yes, we used pagers in those days) went off that there was an incoming patient being transported from Brampton. There were no other details at that point. I made my way back to the unit to talk to the paramedics en route to the hospital. My day and my life were about to change.
A 19-year-old young man was being brought in. He had been pouring a highly flammable chemical from one ungrounded drum to another when it exploded and ignited. It was his third day at a part time job and he was not told what he was doing was dangerous and that he should be taking precautions. I knew what the outcome would be and was preparing myself for what the next 24 hours or so would bring. Sean arrived and I met him at the unit – still conscious, frightened, and struggling to breathe. His parents met me just a matter of minutes after Sean arrived. They saw him conscious and as with many burns, he didn’t appear too bad at the outset but that would change. We intubated him, began to treat his inhalation injuries first and his body surface burns next. I stayed with him and his family through my shift and the next one. I watched them slowly realize how very serious this was.
He died the following day from an inhalation injury and his third-degree burns.
I had stayed in touch with Sean’s father Paul, as I made it my practice with families of those who had died as well as those who went on to often long tedious recoveries. I learned about Sean – he was a competitive swimmer, a dog lover, a hiker, a music lover and a fun loving, carefree teen. But my follow up with Paul was different – we became very good friends and we remained friends until his death last year from lung cancer.
Paul’s family went through unbearable pain dealing with the senseless death of their young son. Paul decided to turn their tragedy into something that would protect others. He left his career as an executive with CBC to become a national advocate for mandatory job training for all youth, and for standards for that training. He created Safe Communities Canada, a national charity devoted to reducing injuries and promoting cultures of safety. Over 80 communities were designated Safe Communities, representing more than a quarter of Canada’s population. This model led to the creation of similar foundations internationally, and Safe Communities Canada was accredited as an International Safe Community Certifying Centre by the World Health Organization. Paul also developed Passport to Safety, an online workplace standard that tracks hundreds of health and safety training modules through portable e-transcripts. Internationally, one million people have completed a Passport to Safety program. He was the co-founder of Parachute, Canada’s national charity dedicated to injury prevention.
For his safety leadership, Paul was presented with Ontario’s Outstanding Achievement in Volunteerism Award and was inducted in Ontario’s Volunteer Hall of Fame. He is a Member of the Order of Ontario, and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (Civilian) by the Governor General of Canada.
He devoted his life to raising awareness and making change. In parallel, Sean’s death and my exposure to his family prompted me to want to redirect my career to one that would allow me to influence change in the system to protect patients, caregivers and those who do not yet need the system.
Fast forward to when I was working at CIHI managing the clinical registries, one of which was the trauma registry. I was visiting with Paul in Nova Scotia when we hatched an idea – we worked together over the course of a year to explore and then show the evidence about youth injuries at work through our trauma registry data. We partnered with the Ministries of Labour and Education to come up with a plan to address this now that we had the data to prove a correlation. We ultimately implemented a mandatory program for all grade 9 students in the province of Ontario that taught them their rights as temporary or part time workers (including the right to get training and the right to say no to a task if they felt unsafe or unprepared to do it).
I saw the power of evidence in action when we were able to accomplish this!
The other important lesson I learned was not to be afraid to expose my personal experience and my story when I was talking about the evidence or data. I learned the importance of human stories in making data relevant for people. Since then, I have, when appropriate, used my own personal stories to shed light on issues.
It is so very inspiring to have had an influence in my life that has been so profound and so inspiring. Paul was a treasured friend and an inspiration on so many levels and my life is the richer for knowing Sean for those 24 hours and for knowing his father for all these years now.
What or who inspires you?