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Can the President of the Canadian Medical Association help to find a cure for the country’s ailing healthcare system? The challenges are huge, but Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull, Meds’78, is ready to take them on.
Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull, the 2010-2011 President of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), has never forgotten the scary misunderstanding he had to deal with on his first day of medical school – a case of mistaken identity.
The day he arrived at Queen’s from Toronto, he found a name tag waiting for him, but the name on it was spelled with a “G” and it bore a different middle name. When Jeffrey pointed out the error, he was assured the name was correct. He panicked. He recalls thinking, “Oh, no! How am I going to tell people that I’ve come all the way here by mistake?”
After some frantic phone calls cleared up the confusion, Jeffrey learned he wasn’t the only Turnbull in the Class of ’78. It wasn’t the last mix-up between the two Turnbulls. Sometimes they even received each other’s marks.
“He was the guy who was meant to be in medical school, because his marks were way better than mine. The one with the ‘G’ was way smarter than I was,” laughs the one with the “J.”
By his own admission, Turnbull wasn’t an over-achiever during his undergrad years at the U of T, but eventually he spent less time riding his motorbike and more time studying. When he did so, he more than made up for any lost time and has now built an impressive résumé that includes the Order of Canada.
Turnbull, who added the CMA duties to his already hectic schedule last August, graduated from Queen’s on schedule (as did Dr. Geoffrey K. Turnbull, gastroenterologist) before going on to the U of Western Ontario for a specialty in internal medicine. He later added still more letters after his name, earning a Master’s degree in Education.
In his first decade of practising and teaching medicine, Turnbull was not content to work only in the hospital and university settings. In 1991, he and his family – wife Celia (Swan), NSc’77, and their four children – moved to Ottawa, where he’s now the chief of staff at the Ottawa Hospital, has been Vice-Dean of Medicine at the U of Ottawa, and co-founded a program to deliver health care to the city’s homeless. His Order of Canada citation described how he visits city shelters each week and also has taken his commitment to caring for the less fortunate beyond Canada’s borders, working at clinics in the slums of Bangladesh, Kenya, and Nigeria.
Turnbull draws inspiration from these annual trips abroad and from the work he does there. He sees a great deal of good being done for very little money. “It makes me want to come back and do a better job,” he says modestly.
Though at age 59 he’s a seasoned traveler and man of the world, Turnbull still has many fond memories of his student years in Kingston. He loved the compact size of Queen’s and has nothing but praise for the medical education he received here. “Some of my professors were pretty tough on me, but they were, in the end, very, very good doctors, teachers, and role models,” he says.
Traveling across Canada lately in his role as CMA President, he has been running into old classmates and meeting other Queen’s alumni. He explains to them, as he explained to the Review, that he was motivated to seek the CMA leadership because he wants to be “an agent for change” in Canada’s health care system.
Turnbull likens the “progressive decline” in the quality of Canada’s universal system to watching a train wreck happen in slow motion.
He acknowledges that it won’t be an easy job for doctors, even with the CMA’s clout and numbers, to overhaul the system from inside when that system is too often resistant to change and subject to federal-provincial conflicts. However, he relishes a challenge.
So keep your eye on Dr. Turnbull – Dr. Jeffrey Michael Turnbull, that is.