OKANAGAN - For his seventieth birthday, Dr. Bill Nelems was cycling through Botswana on the Tour d’Afrique. He started the cycling race in Lilongwe, Malawi, heading to Cape Town, South Africa to raise awareness for the Okanagan-Zambia Health Initiative - a non-profit organization he founded.
Death, it seems, was the only thing that could stop him.
The remarkable thoracic surgeon, Dr. Nelems, passed away April 1 at his farm in Coldstream, B.C. at the age of 77.
“He was someone I could phone at two in the morning and he would be there,” long-time friend Dr. Glynn Jones said. “He was constantly thinking and seeing where he could help, it was never about himself.”
Born to Canadian parents on April 26, 1939, in Springs, South Africa, Dr. Nelems spent the first 17 years of his life living in mining towns across South Africa and Zambia. He returned to Canada to study at the University of Toronto.
Dr. Nelems would go on to be B.C.’s first thoracic surgeon and performed Canada’s first lung transplant. Not only did Dr. Nelems establish the thoracic program at Kelowna General Hospital, but he was one of the first administrators of the B.C. Cancer Centre for the Southern Interior when it opened in Kelowna in 1998.
During his illustrious career, Dr. Nelems was recognized for his many contributions to Canadian health care. In 2009 he received the Award of Excellence in Medical Achievement from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C.
However, one of his biggest legacies will be the Okanagan-Zambia Health Initiative. After traveling to Zambia with his daughter in 2006 he met up with a University of Toronto alumni and created the non-profit organization. The initiative focuses on training medical staff in Zambia.
Jones is one of the doctors associated with the organization and accompanied Nelems twice to Zambia.
“I first met Bill about 10 years ago while I was assisting in the operating room. We chatted and he shared his passion for Africa and his passion for giving back,” Jones said. “He was a very persuasive and enthusiastic guy, and before I knew it I was going with him to Zambia.”
Jones says the two had lots of adventures while in Africa.
“On my very first day, on my first trip to Zambia there was a patient with a spear lodged in his back,” Jones recalls. “Bill immediately took charge and took him to the operating room - the patient would’ve died without him there because the doctors didn’t have the resources or knowledge to deal with that kind of thing. He turned that situation into a wonderful teaching experience.”
Dr. Nelems since retired from his thoracic surgery practice and became a professor emeritus at UBC. Additionally he continued to work part time as a certified counsellor at the Okanagan Interventional Pain Clinic. He also co-authored the Evolution of Thoracic Surgery in Canada, which was published in 2014.
“He did a heck of a lot,” Jones says. “He was always reaching for the stars, making things happen and building relationships. It was never a question of if he had a good or a bad day, it was rarely about himself.”
The 77-year-old leaves behind his wife, Mary Ellen and four daughters.
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