Man in the Arena

Dr. Fourie Smith installed as new president of Doctors Manitoba

Written by Robin Summerfield

In Paris, on April 23, 1910, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt gave what became one of his most quoted speeches. The so-called ‘Man in the Arena’ speech, given at the Sorbonne in front of thousands of university students and dignitaries, was a rallying cry against cynics who bashed people who were trying to make the world a better place.

Roosevelt told the crowd: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs; who comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

Dr. Fourie Smith has a longer excerpt on a placard hung in his office at Dakota Medical Centre in Winnipeg.

When he is asked about it, the 49-year-old replies it is first of his two favourite quotes. And then Dr. Smith recites the second one:

It was Martin Luther King who said, ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.

“Isn’t that awesome?” says Dr. Smith.

It’s clear the words and deeds of those two historic individuals have imprinted on the South Africa native. These are words Dr. Smith lives by and is trying, in his own way, to make things better for the world through his patients and alongside his fellow physicians.

And now he steps into a new role which will put him in an entirely new arena. In early May, Dr. Smith was officially installed as Doctors Manitoba’s new President of the Board during the Annual Awards Gala at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. He takes over the role from outgoing president Dr. Shannon Prud’homme, who served from 2018 to 2019.

Like presidents in recent years, Dr. Smith takes the reigns at Doctors Manitoba during challenging times in health care in Manitoba. The system is in flux with many changes on the horizon. Change and uncertainty is what medical doctors talk and worry about most right now, says Dr. Smith.

“Physicians are faced with constant uncertainty. It is challenging to provide care, it is challenging to advocate on behalf of your patients when you don’t know what awaits you around the next corner,” he says.

Dr. Smith is currently living in this uncertain reality as well. He has a bustling family practice at Dakota Medical Centre in Winnipeg caring for almost 2,000 patients.

Originally from South Africa, Dr. Smith graduated from medical school at the University of the Orange Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He interned at the University Hospital Complex in Bloemfontein, a city of more than 500,000 people located in the Orange Free State, a province within South Africa. Dr.  Smith met his wife Anza while they were both at university. The couple came to Canada in 1998 and settled in Vita, in southeast Manitoba.

Dr. Smith was recruited by the South-Eastman Regional Health Authority to come to Canada and lived in the small rural community for six years before moving to Winnipeg. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl, who are now both teenagers. He and Anza have been married for 25 years. At Dakota Medical Centre, Dr. Smith works alongside a multi- disciplinary team of physicians in a thriving practice. Anza, who has a degree in business and human resources, is the current executive director of the clinic.

Dr. Smith has come a long way from his beginnings in South Africa, and not just geographically. As a teenager back home, Dr. Smith was on a path leading nowhere fast. He was running with a questionable crowd and getting into fights and scuffles, fueled by teenage bravado and underage drinking. It was the 1980s in South Africa and getting in trouble was not unusual at that time, Dr. Smith explains.

Two things ultimately happened to change his life. One was rooted in fiction, while the other was rooted in reality.

As a kid, Dr. Smith loved watching M.A.S.H, the television show starring Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce, a rogue, dashing and highly skilled Army Surgeon who saved the day too many times to count .

“Who in high school didn’t want to be Hawkeye Pierce?” says Dr. Smith.

But at age 16, something else happened. Dr. Smith shadowed his family physician for a week. Dr. Smith’s life and attitude was transformed.

“He made me realize in that one week there is nothing more powerful on this earth than the ability to ease another person’s suffering,” says Dr. Smith.

He watched his mentor relieve his  patients physical suffering, from putting in stitches to giving something for pain. And he watched his mentor relieve emotional suffering, by treating patients to extend their lives or talking to family who had lost a loved one.

“He did this every day for 45 years. Isn’t that amazing?” Dr. Smith says.

Later, the teenage Smith went home and told his mother about his experience shadowing the doctor.

“She said, ‘So, do you think there is anything in the world that comes close to that?’ and I thought to myself, ‘No, there is nothing that even comes close.’”

His path was set. Fast forward to today.

Dr. Smith draws from his past, including that crucial experience he had shadowing the doctor, to inform his new role as president of Doctors Manitoba.

He is a big proponent of the Doctors Manitoba’s Mentorship Program which partners medical students and residents with physicians. The program encourages physicians-in-training and practicing physicians to make life-long collegial and personal connections through informal and more formal meetings and interactions.

Also on his radar: Physician resources in Manitoba. He is keen for a new master agreement to be finalized between physicians and the provincial government. The agreement expired at the end of March but Dr. Smith is confident that “the different stakeholders all have the patients’ best interest at heart and as such I am confident in a timely and satisfactory resolution to the issue.”

A master agreement is crucially important to recruiting and retaining physicians Manitoba, he says.

When asked about what he hopes to achieve in his year as President of the Board, Dr. Smith pauses. His role is to support and stand behind the organizational goals. He believes strongly in the work Doctors Manitoba is doing and wants to support and bolster that as its new President of the Board.

But with physician physical health and wellness at the forefront of many current discussions, Dr. Smith hopes to not only advance these efforts but also extend them to include a new cohort of people under the umbrella of Doctors Manitoba.

“We have to expand our focus to include the health and wellness of the people we as physicians most often neglect, our families: the husbands, the wives, the partners, the children,” says Dr. Smith

“We have never stopped to ask what the effect is on the family when Dad or Mom misses the recital five years in a row or has to cancel a vacation on short notice because a colleague fell ill.”

It’s a cause and an issue worth exploring, says the father of two. “In fact, recognizing the impact on the families of those practicing medicine is long overdue.”

When we talk about physician health and wellness we all get it, doctors take the blows on a regular basis. But we never stop to think about who takes those blows with them,” he says. “And that’s a big deal.