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Soulful Work

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By Jennifer Parraga, BA'93

Just as the sun is rising, Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull heads outdoors to his farm to gather some fresh eggs, feed his chickens, horses and a donkey, and at the same time feed his soul.

It’s just one aspect of Dr. Turnbull’s life that he describes as enormously satisfying.

Another is the work that he does with some of Ottawa’s most vulnerable populations, specifically those people who are homeless. He’s been doing this work since 1993, and recently shifted his professional responsibilities to spend more time working with the homeless community.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Turnbull, a Schulich Medicine resident alumnus, began to recognize the ineffectiveness of health care delivery for individuals who were homeless. He noticed a discouraging pattern of individuals returning to hospital several times for care, often sicker and weaker than their previous visits. The care they were receiving just wasn’t meeting their needs, he explains.

He started exploring the circumstances further. Fast forward a few years and many hours of work, Dr. Turnbull, along with a team of individuals, founded the Ottawa Inner City Health Inc – now comprised of a number of programs providing services to improve the health and welfare of Ottawa’s homeless communities.  

The single program has now grown to 11 across nine shelters, and from 20 beds to 150 beds. The teams provide integrated health care services to members of the homeless community who have chronic health and mental issues. They also have a palliative care unit, dental unit, and a nursing unit with inpatient services.

Dr. Turnbull recently announced that he will be dedicating more time to the Inner City Health programs and, after 10 years in the position, he is stepping down as Chief of Staff from The Ottawa Hospital.

“The need in the community has become profound,” said Dr. Turnbull. “And while I’ve always been there, I realized that one day a week is no longer sufficient.”

Physicians, Dr. Turnbull says, are in a privileged position, and with that privilege comes a responsibility to serve vulnerable populations. “It’s part of our job,” he added.

He believes that by creating and working with the Inner City Health programs, serving as the President of the Canadian Medical Association and getting involved with international work, he is living up to that responsibility. It’s also how he has continued to grow and learn as a physician – and human being.

“I continue to learn every day,” he said. “The people I work with in the community are passionate and generous and they teach me about not judging, about courage, about humour and honesty. I feel very fortunate to be working with them.”

This work has provided Dr. Turnbull with meaning and great professional satisfaction. He’s quick to point out that each physician needs to think about how they can become an advocate that fits with their practice and their life – it may be with an individual’s own patients, by getting involved at a university, hospital or with national or government organizations.

“We have a professional obligation to serve our community – no matter who you are, you should try to find your own route, and once you do, you will find meaning and, quite frankly, never have to work a day in your life.”