Dr Bill Nelems, 1939–2017

Issue: BCMJ, Vol. 59, No. 5, June 2017, page(s) 276-277 Obituaries
Sterling Haynes, MD

Dr Bill Nelems, 1939–2017
Ubuntu is an African Bantu word meaning “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

Bill Nelems, a retired thoracic surgeon, was a BC physician, educator, writer, and philanthropist. Bill was born in 1939 in the mining city of Springs, South Africa. He exemplified the Ubuntu philosophy, described by the South African Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught with and inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness; it speaks about compassion.”

Bill Nelems was educated in Natal, South Africa, and raised in Zambia. His father was a Canadian mining engineer working in the Copper Rand Mine and later in the mines of Zambia. When Bill finished high school in South Africa, the family moved back to Toronto. Bill attended the University of Toronto and graduated with a bachelor of applied science in mining engineering. His sister was studying medicine at the time and persuaded Bill that it was fun and interesting, so he enrolled in medical school and graduated four years later in 1962 with an MD. Many years later, it was obvious that Bill always did find medicine both fun and interesting; even after retiring from surgery he continued to work, looking after patients with chronic pain at the Okanagan Interventional Pain Clinic and studying neuropharmacology to write a fellowship examination in pain management.

In 2006, while traveling to Zambia with his daughter Rebeccah, Bill renewed his friendship with medical school classmate Dr Chifumbe Chintu, an outstanding pediatrician in Zambia. This reunion led to Bill organizing, with Rebeccah’s help, a not-for-profit group with other Canadian health care workers to focus on collaborative teaching in rural community centres in western Zambia surrounding the city of Mongu. Sister Kathy, an Irish Catholic nun of the Presentation Sisters in Mongu, provided housing for the Canadian team in her convent. Professor Fay Carp at the UBC Okanagan School of Nursing organized 2-month electives for senior nursing students to work in Zambia.

With Bill spearheading the group, the project called OkaZHI was born, a partnership of Okanagan and Zambian health care workers.

While teaching with his team in rural Zambia, emergency situations sometimes arose, and Bill dealt with them with whatever supplies were available. On one such occasion a man presented with a five-pronged barbed fishing spear embedded in his right chest cavity. As Bill was expecting to give a surgical talk on how to insert chest tubes, he was able to set up an underwater seal chest-drainage system with a couple of chest tubes he had in his briefcase. The stage was set for Bill to lead the performance of his life. Dr Glynn Jones, Bill’s fellow speaker and a Canadian anesthetist, gave the man the anesthetic while Bill performed a right thoracotomy, and was able to remove the five-pronged spearhead. The bleeding was minimal and controlled, and he closed the chest. Eight days later the patient had learned two words in English—at discharge he said to Bill, “Thank you.” The patient then prepared for an 18-hour journey home by truck and dugout canoe.

Besides writing many academic papers and monographs, Bill and fellow thoracic surgeons Griffith Pearson and Jean Deslauriers co-wrote the book Evolution of Thoracic Surgery in Canada. And on top of his writing and teaching accolades, Bill was elected to the University of Toronto’s sports hall of fame in 2015, for rugby. It was his athletic bicycle riding in Africa, however, that put Bill’s philanthropic quest in the news.

In 2010 Bill and two of his Canadian supporters cycled from Malawi to Capetown, a 4100 km trip, to raise money for OkaZHI. On one long hot day, a 207 km ride on Bill’s 71st birthday, they crossed the Namibian border where the border guards took his passport briefly. A few minutes later, the guards came out as a group and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. Another time he was asked to come to the aid of a medical student who sustained a deep laceration to his upper lip while participating in the Tour d’Afrique to raise money for OkaZHI. When it became clear that flying him out was not the best option, they found an operating theatre with everything needed to do the surgery. Bill had to become a plastic surgeon, turning a rotational flap and repairing the man’s upper lip.

The Zulu phrase umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu means “a person is a person through other persons.” In this same spirit, BC doctors can support OkaZHi and cheer the BC physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and volunteers who are teaching the latest modern medical treatment to the people of Zambia.

Sadly, Bill Nelems died suddenly on 31 March 2017.
—Sterling Haynes, MD