Provincial health officer cancels retirement, stays on duty at 72

Last year, Dr. Perry Kendall announced he would retire on March 31 as B.C.’s provincial health officer. That day came and went and Kendall remained in office. There was no announcement

It turns out that after media interviews about his retirement, Kendall, 72, mulled over a question he was asked: “What has age got to do with it?” Indeed.

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“Over Christmas and New Year, I thought: What does age have to do with it? I really enjoy the work I’m doing,” said Kendall, who has held the job for 16 years.

Kendall began thinking of other figures in public health of the same age whom he admires, who are still working full time and doing impressive work. He also thought about the experience he brings to new initiatives, and projects he has yet to complete.

In early January, Kendall asked the Ministry of Health’s deputy minister, Stephen Brown, if he could rescind his retirement if the job had not yet been filled.

“I felt really reinvigorated when the deputy said: ‘Yes, we welcome you to come back,’ ” Kendall said. “I got a whole new surge of energy and enthusiasm.”

Less enthusiastic about Kendall’s change in retirement plans was his wife, Rena Kendall-Craden, director of communications for the City of Vancouver. She commutes weekly to Vancouver from the family’s home in Oak Bay.

Had he retired, the tentative plan was that Kendall was going to spend more time in Vancouver, or likely move there.

The couple has two grown children living in Victoria — a son, Max, who is an artist and surfer, and a daughter, Sahara, who is the co-owner of OLO restaurant, nestled in Victoria’s Chinatown on Fisgard Street. Kendall also has a grandson, Nico.

Spending more time in Vancouver could still happen one day, but not now.

Instead, the two are taking time together where they can find it. This week, they are in France, one of their favourite vacation spots.

Kendall believes that, during his time as the province’s public health officer, he has made contributions in the areas of First Nations and aboriginal health, drug and mental-health policy, chronic-disease prevention and health promotion, and nationally, in outbreak control in the creation of the Public Health Network after SARS.

He has also overseen controversial policies such as mandatory masks for health-care workers and visitors in hospitals and care homes who are not vaccinated for influenza during flu season. And for years, he has supported supervised injection sites, including in Victoria.

With a second wind, Kendall wants to refocus on chronic-disease prevention and health promotion.

He points to a sharp decline in the rate at which people are being diagnosed with diabetes in B.C. since 2008.

“We can say with some confidence in B.C. we’ve seen significant decreases in the rate of new cases of diabetes, which were going up,” Kendall said.

Since obesity is one of the major contributing factors to adult-onset diabetes, Kendall suggests the results may be the consequence of health-promotion programs put in place by the B.C. government in the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Kendall said he is enthusiastic about beefing up public-health initiatives to reduce obesity and improve healthy eating as a way to prevent disease and chronic illness, reduce in-hospital stays and increase the number of people living longer, more independent and healthier lives.

“I’m not going to sit back and watch. I’m jumping in again,” said Kendall, who works 50 hours a week.

Kendall will also continue to press for supervised injection/consumption sites, including provision of prescription heroin and cocaine for people who aren’t served well by methadone and can’t quit otherwise.

On June 17, the “yes2scs” coalition — campaigning for comprehensive harm-reduction services in Victoria, including safer consumption services — organized a forum attended by about 100 people.

In the fall, the coalition will be invited to work alongside police and the health authority on the City of Victoria’s strategic plan to explore harm-reduction services, including supervised consumption sites.

“We have a population who inject drugs, who are at risk, who tend to do it in the streets and we have a number of clinics providing support for them and it would be relatively easy to develop a distributed model so you could have injection-drug users inject in those clinics in a safe room under supervision,” Kendall said.

Health officials in B.C. have been trying to reduce drug use and abuse for many years and will go on trying, Kendall said.

But one of the most compelling arguments for supervised injection sites is that at InSite in Vancouver, users are more likely to take part in drug-treatment programs than those not injecting through the program, he said.

Kendall isn’t saying how long he’ll stay on as provincial health officer, only that he has a second wind and wants to see some special initiatives through.

“Looking forward to another year,” he said from France.

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