London-born doctor, author Vincent Lam searches for stories inside sickness

The London Free Press
October 22, 2014

Dr. Vincent LamWhen someone first uttered the old adage that variety is the spice of life, they could have had Dr. Vincent Lam in mind.

He’s a medical doctor by trade with expertise in addictions, experience in international air evacuation and expedition medicine on Arctic and Antarctic ships.

He’s an author of books such as Bloodletting and other Miraculous Cures (which won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize) and The Flu Pandemic and You, not to mention a biography of the CBC’s Greatest Canadian, the late NDP leader and renowned socialist, Tommy Douglas.

It’s clear Lam takes living seriously.

There appears to be no wasted time in Lam’s life as many Londoners and wordsmiths will discover when Lam kicks off the city’s first Words: The Literary and Creative Arts Festival Friday at noon at University Hospital (Auditorium A, room B3-246) where he’ll deliver Narrative in Medicine: Why We Need Stories in an Age of Evidence.

Oh, it’s also worth mentioning that Lam is a novelist, his first book of fiction, The Headmaster’s Wager, was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Prize, longlisted for the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, longlisted for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Prize, and shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize.

“It used to be that society wanted us all to put our noses down and do one thing over and over again in our lives,” said Lam in a brief telephone interview.

“Now, you can have a chef who is also a television celebrity who is writing a book, or an athlete who is a community activist and wants to become a politician. More and more our society is trending away from that model.”

Stories are important to Lam, but not just the fictional variety that can deliver such comfort and escape for the masses.

“The thing I’m going to try to show people is that medicine is all about stories,” said Lam, who was born in London but raised in Ottawa.

“What I’m trying to tell people is evidence is not enough. The present world tells us everything should be empirical.

“But stories allow us to be human, to figure out the situation we’re in and they are crucial to the practice of medicine. Patients are telling us their stories when they come in to the emergency department. They don’t know what (is ailing them) means medically, but they know the story of what happened to them and that’s crucial to any diagnosis.

“Unless you know their story you have no idea how to diagnose what’s wrong or how to treat it.”

Lam said London’s newest festival is “fantastic.”

“Every community should celebrate their stories and books,” said Lam. “This is how we define ourselves and find out about ourselves.”

© 2014 The London Free Press