Blessed with an indomitable spirit and spurred by a sense of guilt that she had so much while others did not, Dr. Joan Ford dedicated much of her life to helping those less fortunate. Yet she was disarmingly modest about her striking career laced with accomplishments, most notably her time in the shadow of Mount Everest providing medical care to the region’s impoverished Sherpa people.
Otherwise a general practitioner in suburban Vancouver for 40 years, Dr. Ford felt she deserved no accolades for simply doing what she felt was right. When notified of her 1991 appointment as a member of the Order of Canada, she thought it must be a mistake. Surely the honour was meant for her sister-in-law Marguerite Ford, who had spent 10 notable years on Vancouver City Council.
Dr. Ford’s work with the Sherpas in Nepal arose from a chance conversation at a Save the Children function in 1979 with famed mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, who made the first confirmed ascent of Mount Everest with his Sherpa climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay. He had subsequently committed himself to building a network of schools and health care facilities for a people he had come to greatly admire.
Sir Edmund wondered whether Dr. Ford was interested in taking on duties at the Himalayan hospital he had established in Kunde. She was.
The invitation came at a fortuitous time. After years of making house calls, delivering hundreds of babies, handling on-call duties at the local hospital and everything else associated with her practice, Dr. Ford could feel herself burning out. Normally a beehive of activity, she was finding it harder to get going in the morning, while often watching the clock as the day wore on. “She was ready for a break,” niece Dr. Cicely Bryce said. “She knew this would stimulate and invigorate her.”
A year later, the 55-year-old physician was ensconced at the small, rudimentary Kunde hospital high in the Himalayas, treating members of the Sherpas’ mountain-dwelling community. Sir Edmund’s briefing to her had been simple and to the point. “He told me to take my Adidas runners, a stethoscope and an umbrella,” Dr. Ford remembered.
It was a fill-in job – a six-week locum to replace rotating resident doctors during their annual holiday, but Dr. Ford took to it. She kept returning. Over the next 10 years, she did five more locums, each lasting up to two months. Several times, seasonal monsoons grounded flights to a nearby airstrip, forcing her to make an arduous week-long trek over three mountain passes to the hospital. Even when small propeller planes could land on the short, precarious runway at Lukla, a steep, two-day climb to the remote facility remained. At 4,000 metres, it was said to be the highest hospital in the world.
Conditions have since improved, but in 1980, there was no electricity or reliable running water. The X-ray machine was often pointed toward the area’s holy mountain, accompanied by prayers, in the hope of improving its performance. Dr. Ford preserved and embraced it all, treating patients for serious fractures, burns and scalds from their open fires, serious infections, birth complications and anything else that required her attention. If a day’s journey was required to treat a patient unable to travel, she did it.
A deeply religious Anglican, she respected the Sherpas’ devout Buddhism and co-operated with traditional healing methods, including their tradition of letting frail elders die at home, without taking them to a hospital for treatment. She recalled tending to the broken back of someone who had fallen off his horse, while a lama chanted beside him. “You might call it double coverage,” she observed.
As was her way, Dr. Ford played down her contributions, writing after her first experience at the hospital: “I muddled through my stint and nothing dreadful happened.” She marvelled instead at the “fantastic view” of the towering peaks around her. Mount Everest was visible a short distance away. “It was almost too good to be true.”
Dr. Ford’s selfless service for 10 years in a difficult environment was featured in the documentary She Makes Mountain Calls. “We need to hear about these Canadians who are doing these remarkable things,” said filmmaker Beverley Reid of Coming Home Films.
Dr. Ford’s ventures to Nepal were not the only illustrations of her extraordinary life. For a time she was the only female physician at the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C. As president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, she spearheaded a drive for equal pay for female doctors.
She purposefully did locums out of her comfort zone – twice each to the then-isolated B.C. coastal community of Bella Coola, to the poor Caribbean island of Dominica and, after she had officially retired, to the sparsely populated town of Dease Lake, not far from the British Columbia-Yukon border.
“She always felt most comfortable in a spartan environment,” Dr. Bryce said. “It appeased her sense of having too much in life.”
Dr. Ford, who chose a medically assisted death on Oct. 31, four days before her 96th birthday, was also a passionate mountaineer, leading numerous hikes on little-known mountains in B.C.’s Coastal Range. She was involved early on with the Mountain Rescue Group, forerunner of the renowned North Shore Rescue that helps hundreds of injured, stranded and lost hikers every year.
Joan Ford was born Nov. 4, 1925, in the town of Newcastle-under-Lyme in west-central England. She was the third of four children born to Margaret Jessie (née Coghill) Ford, an appointed magistrate, and Ronald Mylne Ford, a lawyer and onetime mayor of Newcastle.
Her diplomat older brother, Sir John Ford, caused a brief diplomatic flap, while serving as British High Commissioner to Canada, over his alleged interference in prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s quest to repatriate the Canadian Constitution.
Joan’s education was interrupted in 1942, when the U.S. Air Force took over her boarding school for its British headquarters.
Not long after that, motivated by her lifelong desire to serve, she enrolled in medical school at Sheffield University while still in her teens. She remembered watching one of the earliest uses of penicillin, given intravenously to a wounded soldier. Dr. Ford graduated in 1948.
But she became dissatisfied with conditions in postwar Britain, and followed her brother Denys, also a doctor, to Vancouver in 1953. Barely a week after arriving, she joined the B.C. Mountaineering Club and climbed Mount Baker, the imposing volcanic mountain across the border in Washington State.
After five months in Bella Coola, then accessible only by boat and float plane, she opened her own medical practice the following year in Burnaby. She was soon the only female general practitioner at the Royal Columbian Hospital, which relied on local GPs to run its emergency department.
Dr. Ford received her first taste of caring for the needy with her two medical missions to Dominica. “It was an island of magnificent beaches and desperate poverty, and a host of new diseases for me,” she said. Her Dominica experience led to an active role with Save the Children Canada and her fortuitous encounter with Sir Edmund. The two remained friends for years.
In 1991, she received the Dr. David M. Bachop Gold Medal for distinguished medical service from the B.C. Medical Association (now Doctors of B.C.). Her Order of Canada citation attested to Dr. Ford’s “selfless commitment” to primary health care for the less fortunate, calling her “a shining example to others in her profession.”
Dr. Ford was predeceased by her brother Sir John Ford and sister, Laura Hampton. She leaves her brother Denys and eight nieces and nephews.