Dynamic duo dedicated their careers to ensuring a healthier Niagara
For almost four decades, Niagara medical couple Robin and Kevin Foster have been serving the health needs of the Niagara Region, each in their own way.
You could say they have covered the medical map: Kevin, with 37 years in general practice in Niagara Falls. and Robin, known by the surname WIlliams during her professional career, was a pediatrician and later the regional medical officer of health for Niagara and associate medical officer of health for the province.
Today, newly retired, they stay quietly in their St. Davids home, self-isolating and walking their family pet, Marigold, a large, friendly Bouvier. Like everyone else, they are waiting to emerge into whatever the new world brings.
Both are tempted to don their white coats again. “We’ve put our names in to Public Health Ontario, signed up to volunteer as needed,” says Robin.
It is unlikely they will get the call, at least to the front lines. In their mid-70s, they are in the high-risk category.
“I don’t think it is a good idea. We can do intellectual stuff.”
Robin has a lot to offer.
There is not much in public health she has not seen.
In her 25-year public health career she has been responsible for providing expertise, guidance and leadership on a long list of health matters, including: controlling communicable diseases, investigating environmental health hazards, maintaining safe drinking water, supervising food inspections, advancing no-smoking bylaws and regulating childhood immunization and health programs geared toward parents and their newborn children.
“It was a mishmash of different ways to support health of the community.”
In 2003, Robin participated in the provincial science committee, helping identify the SARS organism.
“It was a really scary time,” she remembers, looking to Kevin, who nods in agreement. “Very different, but a forerunner of what we are dealing with now.”
After SARS, Robin worked on a panel that recommended the establishment of what is now Public Health Ontario. Then she helped set it up.
It’s apparent that Robin believes her concern about the well-being of her community was nurtured by her loving, attentive and supportive family upbringing in Niagara Falls.
She was one of four children, born to a local surgeon and a stay-at-home mom. “I had a pretty easy, fun, lovely childhood,” she says with a small, almost wistful smile.
After graduating from the University of Toronto medical school, Robin completed a degree in public health. After working locally as an assistant medical officer, she yearned to work with children. She returned to McMaster to focus on pediatrics, opening a practice in Niagara Falls in 1978.
Throughout her pediatric and public health careers, including stints as head of the Council for Early Child Development and the Canadian Paediatric Society, Robin put a special focus on advancing awareness of early childhood development. It was for this career-long contribution that she was awarded the Order of Canada in 2013.
At the other end of the medical spectrum, at the grassroots so-to-speak, Kevin was quietly nurturing the lives of three generations of his Niagara Fall’s patients.
“My story is pretty ordinary,” he says.
Born in Toronto, the eldest of six children, he moved around Ontario and Quebec as a young boy. His father was a vice-president of Canadian Breweries. His mother raised her family and then went off to school at age 60. “She was really smart.”
Kevin attended the U of T medical school and interned in Montreal.
His career has seen a lot of change in how the medical field is managed.
“In my early days we were very patriarchal,” he says. “When I started, the doctor knew everything, and the patient knew nothing. Now, the new family docs have a very holistic view of their patients – looking more at the person with the disease than the disease in the person.”
Kevin and Robin met during medical school while on a summer’s medical internship in Jamaica. Married in 1972, they have three sons, including one who is the head of the intensive care unit at a hospital in Kelowna, B.C.
He is particularly proud of the leadership Robin has exerted on the health system in Niagara.
As an example, he makes a point of recounting the so-called Genoa salami story, a tale as much about dedication and determination as it is about medicine.
It was the Thursday before a long May weekend in 1998. Everyone was getting ready for the first weekend of the summer. Two kids showed up in the Niagara Falls emergency department with serious symptoms of E. coli. A smart emergency room doctor immediately blew the whistle.
Over a hectic, anxious long weekend, the entire Niagara health department team was able to identify the source of the E. coli outbreak — a specific brand of Genoa salami — and notify health authorities across Canada, potentially saving many lives.
“It was Robin who made that response happen.”
Robin’s last major brush with a pandemic was SARS, 17 years ago.
“There was a lot done constructively,” she says. “But it fades from memory.
“I’m sure big gaps will be identified again, especially on Canadian supply chains for personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators.”
And she has seen signals from the Canadian response that are very satisfying: “I think there are pockets of brilliance.”
Robin applauds British Columbia’s performance. “Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s chief medical officer, and I worked together in Toronto on SARS. They have created a fully integrated system. They have real synchronicity between the political and health leadership.”
She also points to the way all levels of government have worked together across the country. “It’s really been quite wonderful.”
In recent weeks, Robin has been working with 16 medical students from McMaster to find new sources for PPE supplies. “The health department asked me to work with students to ‘flush some out of the bushes.’ ”
Now that the supply of PPE seems more secure, these same students will be used in the critical contact-tracing role.
“They will be a little army, trying to build a fence around people who have the virus. It is critical. We’re going to be in this for the long haul.”
Somehow it is hard to see these two retiring.
Robin is just finishing eight years on the Brock board of trustees. “I’ve had lot of fun. It is a pretty rosy time for Brock. It’s growing, it’s vibrant, we’ve got a wonderful president.”
“We are certainly living our retirement with curiosity, family, friends, fun, and a bit of giving back. Our plates always seem full to overflowing.”
Both former doctors believe COVID-19 will change almost everything we do, at least a little bit.
“Thank goodness we’ve got bright, young, smart folks coming along behind us to figure out what it ought to be.”