Tribute to Olympic sailor and doctor Paul Hannam

At the height of the pandemic, Dr. Paul Hannam, the head of one of Ontario’s top emergency departments, knew firsthand how isolating shift work in full PPE could be. As a result, the late chief of emergency medicine and program medical director at North York General Hospital — and a former Olympian — worked to foster community and rebuild teams.

“He was present in the department as much as possible,” says wife Rosemary Hannam, “speaking to each physician and other members of the team daily to see how they were doing, to listen and observe their challenges. He reached out to other key departments within the hospital, such as internal medicine, anaesthesia, pediatrics and primary care, to build connections and new care pathways to improve the quality of care for patients and families, and to improve the experience of the staff.”

As COVID-19 wore on, Paul held informal gatherings with colleagues at the home he shared with his wife and two children. “He wanted to welcome them as family,” says Rosemary. “We would prepare a typical weekday meal for the group — spaghetti, burgers, salmon, or a simple chicken dish, always with homemade cookies for dessert. Knowing that many physicians would be working shifts, we would start serving dinner around 4 p.m. and end around 10, to try to catch as many of the team as possible.”

That was typical of Paul, who, in addition to being a renowned member of the national emergency medicine community, was a well-respected mentor.

The younger son of Alan Hannam, a professor of dentistry at the University of British Columbia, and Pauline Hannam (nee Hannon), a dental microbiologist, Paul Davidson Hannam was born on Oct. 7, 1971, and raised in Vancouver. He grew up in a close-knit neighbourhood near the UBC Endowment Lands, a vast expanse of forest. At age 10, the future Olympian began sailing with his father.

A happy and easygoing child, Paul enjoyed reading, movies, playing soccer and skiing. He attended Queen Elizabeth Elementary School and in 1989, graduated from Lord Byng Secondary School.

It was during his first year at the University of British Columbia, where Paul majored in political science, that he decided to follow in his brother Tom’s footsteps and pursue a career in medicine. “There was no particular a-ha moment,” says Rosemary, “but he had an interest in helping others. A purpose-driven career was important for him.”

He went on to attend medical school at UBC, which he chose so he could continue his sailing training in Vancouver. After he graduated in 1999, Paul and Rosemary moved to Toronto so he could begin a two-year residency in family medicine at Toronto East General Hospital.

Drawn to the pace and excitement of the emergency room, Rosemary says, Paul started working shifts there.

From 2001 to 2019, he was a staff physician within the emergency department at East General. In 2005, he wrote the certification examination in emergency medicine, and the following year became chief of the Department of Emergency Medicine and director of Emergency Services, a role that allowed him to build a supportive culture among physicians, nurses, allied health professionals and porters. “He was proud to work there and embraced the multicultural environment that welcomed and respected all,” Rosemary says.

Ready for a new challenge, Paul joined North York General in 2019.

Knowing from experience the importance of having a mentor, Paul — also an assistant professor at the University of Toronto — often stayed after his shift ended to support a less experienced colleague.

“I learned so much about quiet leadership and calculated decision-making in the few years we worked together,” says Dr. Adrian Heller, an emergency physician at North York General.

“Our department has an incredible culture of caring and support, which can be really special to find in healthcare, particularly in emergency medicine,” says Dr. Adil Shamji, MPP for Don Valley East and an emergency physician at Michael Garron Hospital. “This is a reflection of how he ran our department for years, and it set a precedent that extends to this day. There is no doubt he cared about us all.”

Paul didn’t pursue awards and titles for himself — that wasn’t his style. “He was focused on bringing out the best in each of the physicians on his team,” says Rosemary. “He would write grant proposals, reference letters and nomination letters to create opportunities for the emerging leaders in the group.”

As they developed and matured, Rosemary says, “Paul would gently encourage them to push themselves to see what was possible.” To ensure his legacy, his family has established a national award in his name through the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians and the Schwartz/Reisman Emergency Medicine Institute to support early-career ER physicians with leadership potential.

Paul’s dedication extended to his patients — he had a particular focus on marginalized populations, as well as mental health and addictions — but his priority was his family, particularly children George (born in 2002) and Charlotte (2006). “He loved a good project and would always have something on the go with each kid,” says Rosemary. “For George, it was usually related to a model airplane or hockey or a board game. With Charlotte, it was building something like her dollhouse.” Later on, they all learned to scuba dive together.

Paul and Rosemary first met at preschool, but their paths didn’t cross again until high school. “He was understated but cool and funny, (and) had a confidence about him that drew me in,” Rosemary says. They began dating in Grade 11 and married eight years later in Vancouver, a month after he and long-time sailing partner Brian Storey represented Canada in the Men’s 470 (two-person dinghy) class at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

The Olympics were not without sacrifice. To train, Paul made the difficult decision to take a year off medical school. “But,” says Rosemary, “he had the support of the dean of medicine and enough of a chance at winning that he took the risk.”

The pair finished in 20th place overall — “a dream come true” for Paul, says Rosemary. And he nearly set aside medicine to train and qualify for the 2000 games in Sydney. He remained active for the rest of his life — cycling, playing squash, and beginning in 2017, competed in marathons in Victoria (2017), Chicago (2018), Berlin (2019) and, most recently, Boston (April 2022). Running, Rosemary says, “kept him motivated and clear-headed through the pandemic, the most challenging period in his career.” He died on July 16 of cardiac failure during a fun run.

“One of things that I most admired about him as a leader, particularly during the pandemic, was how he would (check) in with (emergency) physicians casually to see how they were doing,” says Dr. Anne Aspler, emergency physician at North York General Hospital. “Despite the many demands on his time, he was in tune with the importance of people, and he treated each person he came across with profound dignity. I wondered how he could continue to channel so much patience so many decades into his career.

“Paul was a rare gem of an emergency physician.”


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