A Winnipeg doctor hopes his legacy of providing health care to LGBTQ patients — one of only a few local physicians doing so at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis — extends beyond his life.
Dr. Dick Smith, who had pancreatic cancer, died with medical assistance on Tuesday. He was 80.
“My biggest thing that I want people to really get a grip on is that no minority of any kind, whether it be religious or sexual or racial, is ever safe,” Smith told CBC News in an interview 24 hours before he died.
“Democracy is a wonderful thing, but there is always a risk of a majority of people suddenly thinking this or that…. Be very careful and be aware that everything that has been achieved could be taken away in a single election.”
The gay doctor and activist helped many men who have sex with men throughout the HIV/AIDS epidemic and beyond.
Smith played a key role in founding the Village Clinic, which became Nine Circles Community Health Centre.
He retired at 65, but it didn’t stick. He kept seeing patients and founded the Gay Men’s Health Clinic, later renamed Our Own Health Clinic.
His career spanned over half a century; he finally hung up the stethoscope in 2019.
Smith facilitated fundraisers for LGBTQ health care and educated patients on safe sex in the 1980s and ’90s, when fears and stigma around HIV/AIDS were heightened.
He also understood the importance of meeting those most at risk where they were at. He held testing clinics for sexually transmitted infections inside a Winnipeg bathhouse, O’Bee’s Steam Bath, where gay and bisexual men socialized and hooked up.
Up To Speed7:04Dr. Dick Smith discusses life, legacy of treating LGBTQ patients 1 day before medical assistance in death
‘Easy to be bold’
He arrived in Manitoba in 1972, a few years after graduating med school, and practised for a time in Neepawa. He opened a clinic in Winnipeg seven years later to serve lesbian and gay patients.
“Whether it was internalized homophobia or whether it was a genuine shunning while I was in medical school, I had a very emotionally traumatic time, and from that came my tenacity not to give up on this job,” he said. “So that turned out, strangely, to be good.”
He was further propelled toward LGBTQ health care and activism when he met his husband Doug Arrell. They came out together.
“That was a great 46 years,” Smith said.
“I had no immediate family in the city, I had no one I had been in school with, I had no one I had to be ashamed to at all, and it was easy to be bold.”
He told CBC News in 2019 that somewhere in the range of 100 of his patients died of HIV/AIDS over the years.
His patient Jim Kane survived.
WATCH | Jim Kane recalls how Dr. Smith countered ‘fear and stigma’:
Patients heap praise
Kane tested positive in 1986. He credits Smith not just for the love and care he received, but for inspiring him to be open about his status and who he was to help pierce through a veil of secrecy and stigma.
“Dr. Smith was the doctor who treated me for HIV but he did more than that though. He treated the whole community,” said Kane, 69.
“I always remember Dr. Smith doing educational seminars for health-care professionals with some of his colleagues so that he could reduce some of that stigma…. He was front and centre when it came to prevention.”
Up To Speed9:22Former patient of Dr. Smith remembers the impact he made on the HIV/AIDS community
Former patient John Lawrie, who lost his brother and several friends to AIDS, credits Smith with saving his life.
He and Kane nominated Smith to be inducted into the Order of Manitoba, an honour bestowed on the doctor this summer.
Barry Karlenzig became one of Smith’s patients shortly after he came out as bisexual in 2008.
“He has been there for the community, no matter what,” said Karlenzig, president and chair of Pride Winnipeg.
“If Manitoba Health wasn’t funding something, it came out of his own pocket until such time policy changed. He has been a trailblazer.”
Roger Tam, a pharmacist at Our Own Health Centre, was a collaborator with Smith at the clinic in the past decade.
“I feel like I’ve lost a grandfather,” Tam said. “I feel that he is telling us [we] should be using his memory … to carry on what he’s done.”
Tam also was a patient of Smith’s years earlier, after he was attacked outside a nightclub for being gay, he said.
Smith is a “gay hero” who saw “the pendulum move back and forth multiple times in his life” in terms of public acceptance of the LGBTQ community, Tam said.
That illuminates why one of his final messages to the public underscored how the fight for human rights must continue with each generation, he said.
“He embraced me.… I was in a safe place,” he said. “I think that’s what he always wanted.… You should be loved and … you should be aware of where we live and that some people around the world don’t have that luxury.”
Smith said on Monday that he “felt tremendous reward” from the many kind words of patients over the years.
Smith planned to undergo medical assistance in death from the comfort of home in a bedroom that overlooks the yard, with a soothing rendition of Laudate Dominum by Mozart playing in the background.
He hoped the next Our Own Health Centre annual fundraiser on Dec. 2 would see the highest financial support yet to help carry on his legacy.
“I just hope that Our Own Health organization will be amongst the many groups protecting all different kinds of groups.”