Richard Fedorak: Builder of excellence in service of the people

"The greatest thing that I learned from him was that everybody has something good in them and some greatness to contribute."

Ross Neitz - 15 September 2019

Throughout his time as dean, Richard Fedorak would often share how the faculty was built "upon the shoulders of giants." Now that company of giants has grown by one.

Fedorak passed away November 8, 2018 after a valiant fight against cancer.

His life was driven by a deep curiosity, a natural inclination towards leadership and a strong desire to improve people's lives.

Green and gold forever

Richard Fedorak and Karen Grimsrud first met as classmates at the University of Alberta's medical school, graduating in the class of 1978 and married in the summer of 1983.

Fedorak would further his medical training elsewhere over the next eight years, with an internship at the University of Western Ontario and a medicine residency at the University of Toronto. Then followed a gastroenterology fellowship at the University of Chicago and research fellowships in Chicago and at Columbia University in New York. There, he and Karen welcomed their daughter Kristin in October 1985 before returning to Edmonton and to their alma mater, where he began work as a clinical investigator in the summer of 1986.

In January 1989, Fedorak and Grimsrud welcomed their son, Bryan.

Early promise as a physician and researcher

Fedorak became a member of the medical staff at the University of Alberta Hospital and Cross Cancer Institute. He was also a consulting physician at the Stollery Children's Health Centre of Northern Alberta and the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

"He was smart, dedicated, trustworthy, had a great sense of humour," remembered Bob Bailey, a mentor of Fedorak's at the U of A and a close personal friend. "He truly was a superstar and that was recognizable right from the beginning. He put inflammatory bowel disease on the map in Alberta and influenced its management and teaching across the country."

Fedorak's drive and vision would help him grow from a young physician and academic to one of the most respected gastroenterologists in the world. His family remembers him making rounds with in-patients late in the day or running a "night clinic" after his administrative work was done. He was also known to fiercely advocate for patients individually and collectively for access to medications and improved standards of care.

Honed strengths to grow others

While he was undoubtedly brilliant in his field, those who worked closely with him remember his generosity of mentorship.

"I always called him my work dad because he would mentor me on so many things," said Karen Kroeker, a former medical resident under Richard's tutelage and now an associate professor in the Division of Gastroenterology. "He'd figure out what every person needed help with and then he would help them with that."

"You felt that he had a genuine interest and that he understood you better than you understood yourself," added Winnie Wong, a colleague of Fedorak's for 20 years and current assistant dean of postgraduate medical education. "The greatest thing that I learned from him was that everybody has something good in them and some greatness to contribute."

Drove Alberta gastroenterology to the top

Fedorak was promoted to professor of medicine in 1996. He took on multiple leadership roles throughout the course of his career, including president of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterology (1999-2000) and president of the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (2007-2018). At the U of A he would serve as director of the Division of Gastroenterology (1996-2006), director of the Northern Alberta Clinical Trials and Research Centre (2005-2015), associate vice-resident (Research) (2010-2013), interim dean (2015-2016) and dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry from November 2016 until his passing.

Under his leadership, the Division of Gastroenterology became a world-class clinical and research centre and he established both the Capital Health Colon Cancer Screening Program (SCOPE) and the Zeidler Gastrointestinal Health Centre.

A flourishing faculty with Fedorak at the helm

A firm believer in the power of collaborative work, as dean he built closer ties with Alberta Health Services and other key partners such as the University Hospital Foundation, helped guide the City of Edmonton's Health City initiative and drove the launch of the University of Alberta Health Accelerator program in partnership with TEC Edmonton.

He was also instrumental in helping the U of A secure several major gifts, including a combined $54.5-million gift from the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation to the Women and Children's Health Research Institute―the largest gift in the university's history.
According to Dennis Kunimoto, interim dean, Fedorak's greatest accomplishment in the faculty was his effort to reinvigorate a sense of pride he felt had lagged in recent years.
"Richard was always going at 110 per cent, trying to make things happen," remembered Kunimoto. "Most people who had a serious illness would have just stopped working, but he didn't. There was just so much left that he wanted to try and do."