Richard Heinzl 

Doctor without borders

Almost everything about Dr. Richard Heinzl is awesome; not the least of which is something he told us about a half-hour into our conversation when we asked him about the children he's cared for.

"I guess I've delivered a baby on every continent," he said.

Like we said, awesome.

Fresh out of medical school, Heinzl founded the first North American chapter of Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel-winning medical relief organization that cares for the planet's most vulnerable populations.

Prior to his Tuesday, April 8, visit to Boise State University, where he'll be a guest of the Honors College Distinguished Lecture Series, Boise Weekly spoke to the 51-year-old Toronto-based physician about his many journeys but singular vision of what he sees as a "world without borders."

Did you always have a sense that you wanted to be a caregiver?

Both my parents are psychologists. First of all, they're humanitarians and that shaped me. They also encouraged me to follow my passion. Since I was a teenager, I also had wanderlust. I hitchhiked across country when I was 16--sleeping in parking lots, along the St. Lawrence River and in a New Brunswick cow pasture.

I'm stymied by the fact that you formed the first North American chapter of Doctors Without Borders at such a young age.

I remember sitting in a coffee shop in 1983, and an acquaintance of mine plopped a copy of The New York Times in front of me. And there was an article about Medecins Sans Frontieres [known in English as Doctors Without Borders]. And he said, "If you want to change the world, you need to go work with these guys." He called them the French Foreign Legion of medicine.

But you were still in medical school at the time.

In 1985, McMaster University Department of Medicine allowed me to take an elective anywhere in the world. I found myself serving in a small hospital in Kakamega, Kenya.

Pardon the cliché, but is that when a light bulb went off for you?

It was actually a few weeks later. I went AWOL from my elective and crossed the border into Uganda, which was in the throes of civil war. That's when my light bulb went off. There was no border between Kenya and Uganda. There I was with my passport, visa, letters of recommendation and a stethoscope.

But those papers weren't going to protect you.

You have a heightened awareness. It's one of those crazy backward things.

I'm presuming that you weren't armed.

I wouldn't know what to do with a gun if I had one. Instead, I have a stethoscope around my neck. It's much mightier than a gun.

How did you bring more of your peers into the fold to join you in Doctors Without Borders?

The organization appeals to young students in a special way. Younger generations understand that some things aren't right in the world but they still want to break through and do something about the suffering.

Have those ideals ebbed and flowed over the decades?

When I started in the 1980s, I was criticized by some of my colleagues who were on their own "yuppie train." But I really don't think you see much of that anymore. When I get to talk in places like Boise, the students I meet want incredibly interesting work and a great adventure, but they're also looking for something underlined by an important kind of morality.

Are there simple things, like access to fresh water or mosquito nets, that can change the world?

Those things are very real. But when there's warfare, insecurity or conflict, the normal stuff in society falls apart. When greed takes over from simple decency, it can shatter the basic things of society.

I'm intrigued by the title of your address in Boise: "Creating Opportunity in a World Without Borders." I understand what a "world without borders" means theoretically, but what does that mean tangibly?

I'm still blown away by how crazy different places can be, but simultaneously I'm struck at how similar we are. Nowhere do you see that more than with kids. They laugh, play, giggle and sometimes cry.

But it's also a world where more children are having weapons thrust into their hands and asked to be part of makeshift armies.

Guns instead of Frisbees. It's fanaticism. But I'll stop myself there, because I am, for sure, still positive about the world, even though I've been in some tough places.

Over the years, where in the world did you feel most at risk?

Maybe in Iraq in 1991--a very insecure place. There were landmines everywhere. And in Cambodia, we were so close to the front lines that bombs would go off, knocking things off our shelves. And tracer bullets would fly over our heads as we drove down the road.

Have you lost friends or colleagues while they served for Doctors Without Borders?


How does that inform your resolve?

It doesn't change my view of human beings in general. There are a few very bad people. I don't think anyone would want you to change what you believe in because something bad had happened.

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