An unexpected life of service

A former Surgical Advisor to the Surgeon General recounts his time in the military

Amy Hewko - 8 November 2013

Several years ago, Ron Brisebois was a third-year medical student facing an education that cost more money than he had. After learning that the military would support students through their last few years of medical school in exchange for three years of service, he enlisted with the Canadian Forces. He was secure in the knowledge that he would complete medical school, complete three years as a general practioner and return to his life as a "civilian" physician.

Little did he know, three years would stretch into more than two decades of service.

"If you would have asked me in 1985 when I signed the dotted line if I would still be in military more than 26 years later, I would have said 'You're crazy,'" Brisebois said, chuckling slightly at the memory of a former self.

"The teamwork and the camaraderie, being a part of something bigger than yourself, is a key draw. Now that I've retired, that's the thing I miss the most: feeling like you're a small part of something much bigger than one individual."

Before his retirement in September 2011, he rose to the rank of colonel and was the Surgical Advisor to the Surgeon General, one of the highest classifications for medical officers in the Canadian military. He saw the world during his 11 tours of duty, which included destinations such as Malaysia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe.

His first major deployment into a war zone would prove to be memorable. Brisebois was 25-years-old at the time and worked as a family physician, providing humanitarian aid in a refugee camp on the border of Western Turkey and Northern Iraq. Along with two Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors, one International Committee of the Red Cross doctor and 20 medics, they provided care to nearly 70,000 Kurdish refugees.

"Seventy-thousand displaced people living in a tiny refugee camp with one tiny river going through the middle of it. People would defecate in the water and the people downstream would drink the water. We had a cholera epidemic," he quietly recounted. "It's not something you forget."

Cholera is characterized by diarrhea so severe that oral intake of water cannot prevent dehydration. Many of the young children and elderly would succumb to the dehydration and starvation, and the team found themselves burying several people, including children, each day.

Not all moments in his career were as dark his first deployment. Between 2004 and 2011, he would complete five tours of duty in Afghanistan as a surgeon. During this time, he has many positive memories as a military surgeon.

"There were a multitude of occasions when locals or young soldiers came in who were in full cardiac arrest, and we managed to resuscitate them and save their lives. There are other that are less dramatic but equally as important, like when a young person comes in with a profound medical problem that clearly can't be dealt with by the local health-care system," Brisebois said. "We made a difference... it's amazing what a group of people can do."

He also recounted the time he spent working in a Canadian-run hospital in Afghanistan. Less than 200 people ran a full-service hospital with labs, x-ray and CT scans, and an intensive care unit. In the 45 months that the hospital was led by Canadians, nearly 7,000 operative procedures were completed.

"About 80 per cent of [the surgeries] were performed on local Afghans who didn't have access to an advanced health-care system," he said. Providing services to the most vulnerable people of the war would leave Brisebois and the rest of the medical team with a strong sense of accomplishment.

As an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery with an adjunct appointment in the Division of Critical Care Medicine, he noted that working relationships between medical military officers and civilian hospitals is a vital link. Medical officers are able to hone their skills when they are not on tours of duty and newly-trained military physicians gain exposure to specialty shifts, such as intensive care units or trauma units. Medical schools and hospitals also benefit by having a higher number of experienced physicians available to provide care. It's a relationship that benefits both parties, and influences the lives of many people across the world.

This upcoming Remembrance Day, Brisebois has taken a few moments to reflect on his 26 years of health care, surgery and military action, and to remember those who were not as fortunate as himself.

"For me, Remembrance Day is a time when I remember several fallen colleagues and friends who didn't return and, maybe more importantly, the ones who were severely injured. Even in 2013, we still have members who are suffering physical and psychological effects. I typically think of their sacrifices and, for the most part, wish that I could have contributed more through it all. All of them have made much greater sacrifice."