From Africa, to the Caribbean, to the waters of Antarctica: Dr. Robert Coetzee puts down roots in BC’s interior

When Dr. Rob Coetzee arrived in Tatla Lake, he knew the Chilcotin region’s snow-capped mountains and pristine wilderness awaited him. What he didn’t expect was the warm welcome he received from the community, whose coordinated efforts with the Interior Health Authority and Health Match BC helped get him there in the first place.

“The people in these communities just blew me away. I came to remote BC expecting wilderness – it is a given, that is what drew me here. I did not expect how you become absorbed into the community. It is just an incredible experience - people are so grateful that you are here in the first place,” Coetzee says.

Remote areas aren’t new to Coetzee, who had always dreamed of working in Canada. An ALS paramedic since 1995, and a licensed physician since 2006, Coetzee practised rural and emergency medicine in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Later, while working aboard cruise ships travelling to the Caribbean and Alaska, he began the process of becoming registered with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia (the College). But accepting a 14-month position with the South African National Antarctic Expedition caused an unexpected problem.

“Just before I left for Antarctica, I learned that South African physicians could no longer register with the College as of January 2014. I was returning from the expedition in March. It seemed there was no way around this, so I started the registration process in Saskatchewan and Alberta.”

Enter Dr. Michael Smialowski, the sole physician in Tatla Lake. Approaching retirement and on a mission to find his replacement, he knew that Coetzee was a perfect fit for the small ranching community. He promptly mobilized the community, Interior Health and Health Match BC, and ultimately succeeded in bringing the physician to their town.

Coetzee started work in May of this year. He splits his time between Tatla Lake, Anahim Lake, and Redstone, and may expand his reach to the Nemiah Valley in the future. He also works shifts in the William’s Lake emergency room, and has privileges for anaesthesia at William’s Lake Cariboo Memorial Hospital.

Coetzee remains in awe of BC’s Cariboo-Chilcotin region and the lifestyle choices available to him there. An avid fly-fisherman and accomplished photographer, his summers are spent mountain biking, hiking, water skiing, canoeing, and horseback riding. But how does he feel about the approaching winter months?

“I'm from Africa, so snow and ice will remain a lifelong fascination - despite my sojourn in Antarctica. I'll probably become very serious about my cross-country skiing. I may be one of the very few people out here actually wishing winter would come sooner.”

More Profiles