Travel, fencing, bees – what do these three things have in common?
That would be Dr. James Stempien, an unassuming emergency room physician and department head of emergency medicine for Saskatoon Health Region and the University of Saskatchewan.
Dr. James Stempien during a visit to Iceland.
Dr. Stempien can often be seen carrying around a backpack as he darts between Saskatoon’s three hospitals and between the various groups of students he teaches about emergency medicine.
What you can’t see him carrying around is the wealth of experience he has accumulated having lived, worked and volunteered in countries around the world – countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Sudan and Australia, including lesser known countries like the Northern Mariana Islands (one of two U.S. territories with commonwealth status).
The travel bug – where it all began
Papua New Guinea, summer 1983 – Dr. Stempien completed a medical student elective, performing caesarian sections under the teaching of local surgeons, in Port Moresby.
“Papua New Guinea was fascinating,” he says of one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. “I was fascinated with kuru, which is a disease you get by eating human brain.”
In the past, kuru was transmitted among members of the Fore tribe via funerary cannibalism – the practice of eating the flesh and internal organs of human beings after they have died. The practice was eliminated in the mid-1960s because of Australian colonial law enforcement, but the virus can take up to 40 years to develop, so people were still being diagnosed when Dr. Stempien was there in the 1980s.
“It was fascinating meeting people who were still living a traditional lifestyle but were transitioning at the same to this modern society,” he says of his experience. “The first time I went as a medical student, one of my friends, who is a Papua New Guinean, said, ‘I’m going to take you to my home village.’ When we got to his grass hut his mother came out and started screaming and yelling at him. All of a sudden, he starts moving stuff in their hut, and I say, ‘What’s going on?’ He says, ‘Aww, it’s my mom, she’s mad. She said I should have told her you were coming. She would have cleaned. She would have baked something.’ I thought that’s exactly the same thing my mother would say – the only difference is, we’re in a grass hut and his mom’s wearing a grass skirt.”
The young doctor was so captivated by the traditional island that he returned nearly 10 years later, in 1992, with his wife to work as a physician and medical superintendent in the southern highlands province of Ialibu.
“They hadn’t seen a physician for a couple of years, so there were a few things to work on in terms of getting the hospital up to speed and opening wards for things like TB (tuberculosis) and leprosy,” he says. “I was also the only doctor in the hospital for most of the year I was there, so it was challenging.”
A few years later, in 1995, Dr. Stempien and his wife, a registered nurse, took the first of their three children to live in Alice Springs, Australia for nine months to work for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
“When the job as a flying doctor in the outback of Australia came up, we thought, ‘Wow, that would be a cool job,’ and we were right – it was a great job. We’d fly in planes to pick up injured people, drive out to the outback to do clinics with the small, Aboriginal communities, and get calls from people on farms who had access to a medical box (but not a physician or a nurse), and we’d tell them to open the box and take medication #32 or something like that,” he says, adding with a hint of satisfied delight, “parts of it were almost like a movie. It was by-the-seat-of-your-pants type medicine, situated in a beautiful area with open spaces and interesting people, so I really liked it.”
His family’s nomadic lifestyle continued upon their return to Canada, where they lived and worked in Prince Edward Island, the Yukon Territories and British Columbia from 1996 to 2004 (in 2000, Dr. Stempien also spent three months in Sudan, where he volunteered as an anesthetist for the Red Cross at a refugee camp and hospital on the Sudanese-Kenyan border).
In 2004, Dr. Stempien and his family (which now included two daughters and a son) were living in Victoria when the international travel bug bit again. They spent the next three years living in Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands) and Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates [U.A.E.]), where Dr. Stempien worked in each city’s emergency rooms – constantly running out of supplies in Saipan and treating construction site trauma injuries in Abu Dhabi.
In 2007, he and his his family bid farewell to the U.A.E. and its sand dunes, where they often camped with friends on weekends, and moved to Saskatoon, where they have remained for almost 10 years.
“This is the longest we’ve stayed anywhere – it’s really weird,” he says, laughing.
The reasons for staying are both personal and professional.
“There was a family pull,” Dr. Stempien says, explaining that his wife is from La Ronge, “and I enjoy the job. There are certain things I wanted to accomplish within my role, and I have. When I came here, the three emergency rooms (at Royal University Hospital, Saskatoon City Hospital and St. Paul’s Hospital) were separate, with their own unique history and personality.”
Now, because of Dr. Stempien’s work, Saskatoon’s three emergency rooms have been incorporated into one department, the Department of Emergency Medicine, and this department recently received academic accreditation with the College of Medicine.
“I look forward to the administrative challenge of trying to make things better on a systemic level,” he says of the only job that has managed to keep him in one place for nearly a decade.
But Dr. Stempien didn’t always work in emergency medicine. He started out as a general practitioner anesthetist.
“I did a rotating internship for a year, then a year of anesthesia,” he says, explaining that he had always wanted to work in northern Canada, so when a recruiter told him there was a need for anesthetists in the north he enrolled in an anesthesia program in Newfoundland.
“One of my first jobs was in Inuvik, and I loved it,” he says enthusiastically. “I loved all the places I worked in the north: Inuvik, Iqaluit and Whitehorse. They’re all a combination of people who enjoy adventure and like-minded experiences.”
But once he started travelling for work, he never stopped, and consequently, never got around to finishing his residency in anesthesia.
“My plan was to work up north for two or three years, go back and finish my anesthesia, but I never quite got there,” he says, with a small, amused chuckle. “Whenever I thought of going back, another interesting job would come up, so instead, I transitioned into emergency medicine.”
“What I like about emergency medicine is that every shift is different, so you have to be prepared for whatever comes through the door,” he explains. “When I look back on my career, I see lots of things I’m happy with or proud of. I like the idea that I’ve had a varied and interesting practice – that I’ve done something different, out of the norm.”
Fencing – because who doesn’t like swords?
Dr. Stempien’s love of the extraordinary is not exclusive to his professional career. The quirky, intelligent, fast-paced man became enthralled with fencing – a sport in which two competitors fight using rapier-style swords, winning points by making contact with their opponent – as a medical student.
“What’s not to like about hitting people with swords, right?” he says with a laugh. “And, you know, I got to pretend I was a pirate. It was great stuff!”
Although he stopped fencing for about 30 years while he lived, worked and raised a family around the world and across Canada, he has recently taken up the sport again.
“It’s an individual sport, which suits me,” he says. “Your whole body has to move quickly and respond, but there’s also a lot of mental thinking – trying to outthink your opponent. It’s like a quick chess game or an intellectual game of rock-paper-scissors.”
Remarkably, he had to wait until he travelled to Uzbekistan – where he taught a one-week trauma course for the Red Cross in 2014 – to see a televised tournament on fencing.
“I was in a bar after teaching and fencing was on the TV – there was a world junior championship tournament on. Everyone was watching it, which I thought was fascinating, because that doesn’t happen much in Canada,” he says with a satisfied grin.
For the love of bees
And then, there are the bees. They were ordered from New Zealand as the result of a late night discussion between Dr. Stempien and the husbands/fathers of two other families while on a skiing trip in Kicking Horse, British Columbia.
“We knew nothing about bees,” he says with a grin, recalling the day nine boxes – three for each of the family’s hives – arrived. “The instruction was to open your hive, cut the mesh from the box – which had 10,000 bees – and bang it, so the bees fall into the hive. We said, ‘Yeah, that’s going to happen.’ So, we all got our bee suits on – we’re waiting for Armageddon – and then we cut open the mesh, pound on the top and all the bees fall in. It was easy.”
“I like the bees,” he adds, with a mischievous smile, mentioning that while his wife and children like the 500 pounds of honey the bees produce each year, they’re less enthralled with the bees themselves (he says this last bit with a touch of affectionate irony for his small tribe – which also happens to include chickens, dogs, cats, ducks and a tortoise).
And so you have it, Dr. Stempien – one man, one sword and 10,000 bees.