When Dr. Bill Hanlon moved to Canada in 1985 from Ireland, the former pharmacist and instructor at the University of Calgary was enamoured with the beauty of Canmore, Alberta.
He would marvel at his surroundings and he was happiest strolling down the fairway plotting his next swing. The avid golfer spent a lot of his time looking straight ahead, until one day he looked up. Way up.
Hanlon, who was now working as a physician and assisted during the 1988 Winter Olympics, fell in love with the Rocky Mountains. The sloping peaks and summits mesmerized the young man. Instead of wonder what it would be like to explore these geological wonders, Hanlon taught himself how to mountaineer, mountain bike, downhill ski, hike and kayak.
“The golf went out the door and the mountains came in the door,” mused Hanlon from his Cochrane clinic. Hanlon opened his family practice in 1989 and has served the community well. He explained that in some cases he’s worked with four generations within the same family.
When he first made the move to Cochrane his mountaineering friends couldn’t understand why he’d leave the scenic town. Hanlon explained that something in Cochrane attracted him. He purchased a home on the town’s outskirts to the west and settled in. Cochrane is home.
“I love smaller communities, especially in the area of family medicine,” he said. He noted that more than 30 years ago Cochrane was a smaller community.
He will be retiring from his practice on March 19. Retirement for most folks involves slowing down and, in some cases, golf. It’s not that Hanlon is opposed to dusting off his clubs. The 65-year-old is looking forward to dedicating more of his time to exploring the globe, climbing mountains and being a voice for under-served populations.
Hanlon will be embarking on his second attempt at a solo expedition of the Northwest Passage with Basic Health International Foundation, the organization he found in 2003. The project Hauling for Health aims at uncovering better solutions for the ongoing health challenges among the Inuit and the Dené in northern Canada.
“It’s a mix of adventure and medicine. It’s an expedition of listening,” he said.
“We’re there focusing on health and trying to improve the health of these populations through engagement. I’m not a big believer of the colonial style of going in and imparting our ideas to Indigenous communities.”
Hanlon’s last attempt in 2018 was sidelined when he injured his back while lifting his sled from the carousel at the Cambridge Bay airport in Nunavut. Hauling the 90 lb sled further aggravated his back after day four of the challenge.
The project begins in the western Arctic and carries on through the Northwest Passage to Pond Islet on Baffin Island. Hanlon spends time with elders and health workers in outposts in communities along the way. He said the solitary journey on sea ice allows him to think without distraction. Hanlon’s sled is brimming with basic essentials including a loaded firearm that he keeps to fend off any curious or hungry polar bears.
“We’re spending lots of money on health care in the north. I think we need to relook at the approach to healing and health care,” he explained. He says the challenges he encounters in this remote region are no different than what he’s seen in other remote areas around the globe.
In addition to the Arctic, Hanlon has visited all of the continents and has summited the highest points including Mount Everest in 2007. He has worked as an expedition physician in Alaska, Greenland, Antarctica, Tanzania, Russia, Argentina, Chile, West Papua, Nepal and Australia.
A year before his Hauling for Health project, Hanlon skied 730 kilometres across Traverse Lake Baikal in Siberia.
His affinity for mountains has brought him to mountainous regions around the world and into the most secluded pockets of humanity. His biggest passion is spending time with nomadic people living in those areas.
“Through a love of the mountains evolved to going to high mountains and then going to higher mountains. I got much more interested in the people who live in those mountains.” He said the people are connected to their landscape and environment and many of them have very little access to health care or have never seen a physician in their life.
Hanlon spent 70 days walking through northwestern Afghanistan seeking out Kuchis nomads. The nomads live 5,000 metres above sea level year round and have six months of winter with deep snow. He admired the nomads’ minimalistic lifestyle and said western cultures can learn from these cultures.
“Everything they use or carry, they use. All those plastic bottles we drink, imagine carrying them every day.”
Hanlon said some nomads walk seven days to the nearest clinic only to discover that no doctor is on duty.
“Generally in those areas, even if you have a dental abscess or infection, you could die for lack of health care.” He also adds that one in five women die in childbirth.
“They’re very high need. They have a reason to live where they are, but they need better health care to support their survival.” He said health challenges among the Kuchis nomads and other remote regions in the world are sometimes very similar to the health challenges of some of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Hanlon is thankful for the flexibility at his Cochrane clinic that allowed him to practice and travel when he needed to. He said working in two parts of the world - the developed world and the developing world - allowed him to appreciate how fortunate Canadians are to have an ‘affluent’ health system. He said he would return from these adventures physically exhausted, but mentally recharged.
On one such adventure Hanlon found himself in a near death, dangerous situation. Hanlon and two others were climbing Mount Carstensz, the highest peak in Oceania on the island of Papua New Guinea. While scaling the limestone monolith the hillside started to move and a mudslide pulled the three of them into a raging river.
Hanlon broke four ribs and was afraid he would develop pneumothorax, a condition that occurs when air leaks into the space between your lungs and chest wall. The trio slept by a river and Hanlon, who was anesthetized with painkillers at the time, remembers it would take him more than an hour to go from lying down to standing up. The two others he was with were local to the area. Hanlon remembers how the men easily maneuvered through the dense jungle with only bare feet.
“They were so naturally able to move around and I had my fancy western climbing boots that were totally useless.” The trio walked for four days and found a landing strip where Hanlon was transported to Jakarta, Indonesia to receive treatment.
After he completes Hauling for Health, Hanlon hopes to spend some time in Geneva, Switzerland at the World Health Organization’s headquarters. He will continue to advocate for nomadic mountain people and will continue to hang his hat, or stethoscope, at his Cochrane home.
“I love Cochrane. I love living in Cochrane.”