Thompson bid goodbye to one of the eccentric characters who lent his colourful personality to the Hub of the North Jan. 28 when the memorial service for Dr. Alan Rich was held at the St. Lawrence Roman Catholic Church here in town.That Thompson would play host to Rich’s funeral is fitting because, although he spent the last few years of his life in Swan River, this city was his home from before he was a doctor until he was one of the last of his kind standing.
A lot of people, especially now that he is gone, remember Rich as a saint, the doctor who would check up on them and make house calls and even take care of some things that other family doctors wouldn’t – and quite possibly shouldn’t – like providing emergency veterinary care for animals when no one else was available to do so.
But of course, he wasn’t. He didn’t get along with everybody, he was sometimes critical of medical colleagues – possibly for good reason – and he wasn’t blessed with the most refined bedside manner that a doctor has ever had. But whatever he lacked in tact or in fitting people’s impression of what a doctor should look like (which isn’t usually a motorcyclist in leather jacket and chaps) he made up for it with his dedication, not only to this town and to his profession but to the people whose health was entrusted to him.
Rich was an anomaly in Thompson by the end of his career, a doctor who ran his own practice and wasn’t employed by the regional health authority, which gave him the freedom to do things his own way, which may have sometimes been his downfall, as well as the mentality of a business owner. When you are paying rent for the office space you occupy and the salary of the people who take your calls and maintain your records and assist your examinations, your outlook is somewhat different than when you work for a larger organization. For one thing, you probably need to be near death’s door yourself before you start to think about calling in sick because, if you don’t reschedule those appointments, that’s revenue you’re giving up when there are still bills to pay. Furthermore, for such a doctor, reputation is very important. If people don’t like the type of service you provide, they will take their medical problems elsewhere, they won’t refer their friends and family members to you and, eventually, you won’t have a practice any more.
But when you speak to people who knew Rich socially, or those who were his patients, it seems like there was a lot more than his livelihood at stake. Although he sometime came across a bit odd or shy or aloof, what made him such a great doctor in so many of his former patients’ minds was just how much he cared about finding out what was wrong with them and getting them well, to the point that he wasn’t always going to follow established procedures or draw within the lines set out by the bureaucracy. For Rich, it wasn’t about the process, it was about the result. And the result that mattered to him was finding our what ailed his patients and getting them headed back down the road towards health. In the end this may have contributed to his own end, since he continued to work beyond the age when many people feel like they’ve had enough of their profession and just want to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour. Others, most likely Rich among them, get so much pleasure from their work that giving it up seems more like a punishment than a reward.
They say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead but saying that Rich was a complicated man is not a criticism but an observation, one that probably applies to nearly all of us here or in any other community or country across the planet. But if you judge his life and his work by the measure he set out for himself – the question of whether a person did more good than harm in their time on this Earth – the outpouring of grief and memories unleashed by his passing definitely seems to show that the scale was tipped decidedly in the favour of the good.