North Shore's longtime public health doc cooks up palatable retirement plan

Dr. Brian O
Dr. Brian O'Connor, former North Shore public health officer, relishes in his first few days of retirement at a Lonsdale coffee shop on Thursday.
— image credit: Maria Spitale-Leisk photo

Standing at the counter inside a crowded Lonsdale coffee shop on Thursday, newly-retired North Shore public health officer Dr. Brian O'Connor still plays the part.

Presented with a sea of highly-caffeinated beverage choices, O'Connor sticks with a healthy tea. The bespectacled MD — casually dressed in a green, long-sleeved shirt — projects a sense that he has all the time in the world to chat.

Technically, he does.

After spending 27 years at the helm of public health education for the North Shore, O'Connor is handing over the prescription pad to another doctor, one with a fresh set of eyes.

"I know he will be a good replacement for me," says O'Connor, offering a genuine smile reminiscent of a 1950s-era physician.

It was the summer of 1987 when O'Connor first stepped foot on the North Shore in search of a change of scenery.

"I was getting tired of Edmonton winters," he says of his previous public health post. "I'm not a big fan of ice, skating or skiing."

So it's safe to say you won't catch him on a local mountain anytime soon. But, admits O'Connor, he does admire the alpine scenery from afar.

Born and raised in Toronto, O'Connor can't say for certain why he decided to become a doctor.

"I think at the time, I have to be honest, it wasn't anything altruistic. I don't confess to be a great humanitarian," declares O'Connor, a self-described suppressed English and history professor who went into medicine.

When he first arrived here there wasn't a regional health authority, but rather a North Shore Union Board of Health made up representatives from the three municipalities and two school boards.

O'Connor says in some ways the NSUBH was beneficial because local elected officials were directly plugged into public health discussions. However, he concedes, when Vancouver Coastal Health emerged in 1997, it made it easier for the rationing of resources.

Looking back on his tenure, there were some public health pandemics of note, including the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

"That was a very significant health issue for the province, and the country as well," recalls O'Connor.

Then there was the H1N1 flu in 2009 that spread like wildfire across the county and around the world. On the subject of flu shots, O'Connor doesn't admonish the detractors of the vaccine.

"Obviously, as public health officers, we believe in the efficiency of the vaccines and how important they are," says O'Connor. "Influenza is not a mild illness, this is what people don't understand. But I don't go and try to argue with people."

Of all the public health causes he's championed, one of O'Connor's greatest legacies is the stringent second-hand smoke bylaw he helped achieve for the North Shore. As of four years ago, smoking is banned on restaurant/bar patios in both North and West Vancouver districts.

Meanwhile, in the City of North Van, a municipality dense with restaurants, there has been some pushback.

"I hope they will catch up, sooner or later. I do believe they will," says O'Connor of the patio smoking debate, adding restaurant owners are catering to a small population.

The smoking rate is 10 per cent on the North Shore — one of the lowest in the Metro Vancouver region.

O'Connor recalls a rather original smoking cessation challenge North Shore Health put on in the early '90s: People who quit the habit were eligible to win a trip to Hong Kong.

Overall, here on the North Shore, we are a healthier population, confirms O'Connor. Is it because of our close proximity to nature and inspiring walking trails? Perhaps. But, according to O'Connor, it's also because of our socioeconomic status.
"We are the beneficiaries of advantage — that's why we are healthier," he says.

However, hidden locally within all that good health fortune are marginalized members of society. O'Connor, an early member of the North Shore Homelessness Task Force, was awakened to the poverty issue in the late '90s.

"A chap wrote me a letter one day and said: 'There are homeless people living on the streets — isn't anybody going to do anything about it?' recalls O'Connor. "He put the challenge right in my face."

In 2001, the North Shore's first emergency shelter opened at a temporary location. Four year later a permanent homeless shelter opened in the city.

"This is not the end of the homelessness story, we have to take the next steps," says O'Connor.

As for his next steps, O'Connor is three days into retirement and treading slowing.

First, he states the obvious: "I'm going to travel more." O'Connor, 68, will also explore the possibility of going to culinary school for six months.

The owner of 158 cookbooks — he counted them the other day — likes to conduct culinary experiments in the kitchen of his Caulfeild home with a peek-a-boo view through the trees to the ocean.

"I'm a cook, not a chef," chuckles O'Conner, as he heads out the coffee shop door and into a new world of possibilities.

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