by NIKKI KALLIO
from Rotary Canada, April, 2018
Many children dream of being a doctor or astronaut, playing sports, or saving the world. At age 36, Paul Dhillon has done nearly all of it. Now a captain in the Canadian Army Reserve and a rural family physician, Dhillon started his exhaustive list of accomplishments at a young age with a focus on helping others – including an early entry into the world of Rotary.
“Paul is energetic, creative, and intelligent, and has high ethical principles,” says Graham Mallett, a member of the Rotary Club of Tsawwassen (Delta), British Columbia, and a neighbour when Dhillon was a child. “These are the character traits that have made him a successful Rotarian and have contributed to his success in his chosen field.”
Dhillon’s introduction to Rotary was in his hometown of Tsawwassen, where he applied for the Adventures in Citizenship program in Ottawa after seeing a tiny article in the local newspaper. In Ottawa, he met hundreds of other teenagers from around Canada, and “that was my first exposure of what Rotary is and the sort of people that are in it,” he says.
He heard about Rotaract in Ottawa and later joined a club himself. As a Rotaractor, he took a two-week trip to eastern Russia with two other students – a powerful introduction to another culture, global Rotarians, and even international politics. “None of us had ever, I think, left Canada before,” he says. “It was an incredible experience. We ended up meeting Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Russian Communist Party, just very randomly.”
A few years after returning, Dhillon started a Rotaract club in Delta, British Columbia. He later became a member of the Rotary Club of Delta 2000 before moving to Ireland for medical school, where he then joined the Rotary Club of Dublin Central.
In medical school, he decided to focus on rural medicine. “I always loved rural areas and the people there, and it allows me to practise what a lot of people call full-scope family medicine, including hospital work, inpatients, small procedures, clinic work, emergency medicine, home visits, and care homes,” he says.
When he moved back to Canada, Dhillon became a member of the Rotary Club of Regina Oskaya, Saskatchewan. (His wife, Sarah, an independent midwife and lactation consultant, is also a member of the club.) His club partnered with the Rotary Club of Harare Dawn, Zimbabwe, and Bikes Without Borders on a Rotary Foundation grant project to bring bicycles to health care workers in rural Zimbabwe, and Dhillon led the project. Previously, the health workers might have had to walk up to 15 km to see a patient, he says. The project, which was completed in 2014, included a plan to train maintenance workers to keep the bikes in good repair to ensure project sustainability.
“Teamwork is essential at home and abroad, but a project in Zimbabwe with its potential pitfalls needs a coordinator, one who overcomes obstacles,” says Paul Thistle, a Canadian obstetrician/gynecologist at Karanda Mission Hospital in rural northeastern Zimbabwe, who helped facilitate the project. “Paul is that kind of person.
Dhillon used his medical training again to help patients in Africa, when he volunteered through Save the Children UK in 2015 during the Ebola crisis. In March 2014, western Africa had an outbreak that quickly became the deadliest Ebola epidemic in history, killing more than 11,000 people by January 2016. Dhillon worked in the same centre in Sierra Leone where Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey had contracted the disease a few months prior. “That was always on everyone’s mind,” he says. “Every single patient who came in had Ebola. And it’s hot and you’re sweating, and if you get a rip or a tear in your gear, it’s pretty frightening.” (Ebola spreads through direct contact with infected bodily fluids.)
At the epidemic’s peak, the mortality rate was 70 per cent, but it had decreased to about 40 per cent by the time Dhillon arrived. “You still have 60 per cent of the people who go through the Ebola shower, wash off, and walk out of the centre alive,” he says. “Some of them are little kids, and you’re seeing them reunited with their families. It doesn’t negate the horrors of it, but it makes it a lot more bearable, because there were successes.” The experience has helped him in his rural Saskatchewan practice to approach his work more methodically, and he’s less stressed out by routine work. He also knows he has the experience to deal with a large outbreak. “It’s a skill set I hope I never, ever have to use again.”
Dhillon has found the time to write and edit books (including a collection of essays by rural physicians called The Surprising Lives of Small-Town Doctors, sending theprofits to Doctors Without Borders), and to recruit a team of Canadian physicians to play in the World Medical Football Championships in Barcelona, Spain, in 2016.
As for dreams of becoming an astronaut, he’s closer than most: Every five years, the Canadian space program chooses two new astronauts. Of 3,772 applicants, Dhillon made it to the 161st-300th rank. He plans to try again.
Dhillon is the kind of guy who’s always on the move, but Rotary always goes withhim. “Rotary has been a nice kind of connection,” he says. “You can walk into a newcountry and a new city, and you’ll meet people who will have some of the basic humanvalues that are the same as yours.”