On the morning of 22 March 2013 Al succumbed to a non-resuscitable cardiac event. He was 56.
As word spread, an eerie silence descended on the Fort Nelson General Hospital and surrounding communities. The world had lost an Ethiopian prince; Fort Nelson and First Nations had lost a medical missionary and saint; Betty and Leah Asher had lost a soul mate and father; and we had lost a brother.
Al was born in a mud hut in Boroumeda, Ethiopia. It did not take long to recognize that he had amazing potential in all aspects, especially intellectually. He received a scholarship to complete his high school education at the esteemed Wingate High School. At age 17, he escaped the communist uprising to continue his scholarship education in England. He earned his medical degree from the University of Birmingham, graduating as a gold medalist, and rounded out his credentials with a residency in obstetrics and anesthesia.
In August 1991 he relocated to Fort Nelson. He intended the move to be a stepping stone, but got stuck in the mud and hoarfrost. For the next 5 years he practised at the Fort Nelson Medical Clinic with Dr Anthony Kenyon. Shortly after arrival he met and was magnetized to Betty Asher, the director of nursing at the local hospital. Their relationship blossomed, and they became inseparable soul mates. He accepted Leah as his own daughter, and mentored and counseled her to independence as a First Nations teacher. Over the next 2 decades Al and Betty would provide a significant contribution to the community of Fort Nelson. Their regular sanity breaks, during which they would leave town for CME or a vacation, were dreaded, as this meant that the bustling case room and operating theatre would be put on hold without Al’s expertise. As a consequence, maternity patients would spend several weeks in Fort St. John or Dawson Creek motels and medevac numbers would skyrocket.
Five years later Al started a lifelong partnership with Dr Marius Mostert, which was an ironic affiliation—a black Ethiopian and a white South African! They opened the Airport Way Medical Clinic, and a lifelong, harmonious friendship flourished. We enjoyed regular updates and vignettes of their frontier medical adventures—multiple trauma from auto, aviation, and industrial accidents, as well as bear attacks and obstetrical nightmares. On one occasion, they were faced with the challenge of performing emergency surgery by flashlight following a power and backup generator failure, but still achieved a positive outcome!
With time Al developed a special bond with his First Nations patients of Fort Nelson, Fort Liard, and Prophet River. They had implicit trust in his professional skills and judgment. He was considered one of them. During his years in practice in England and Canada, he delivered approximately 10 000 babies without fetal or maternal loss, and these numbers included many First Nations births. He was invited to their christenings, potlatches, and wedding ceremonies. They addressed him reverently as “Kassa.” When the First Nations community heard of his death, they did not hesitate to prepare a celebratory feast in his honor. Al, along with Betty and Leah, left an indelible imprint on First Nations health care and education.
Al lived his life in afterburner mode. His athletic endeavors included cricket, boxing, squash, and windsurfing. He had a passion verging on addiction for a sadistic Scottish pastime that involves using clubs to force a little white creature to dive into a hole not once, but eighteen times. It was common knowledge that if Al was needed for an emergency and did not respond to his pager, all it took was an RCMP constable dispatched to the local fairway to bring him back to reality. He was fiercely competitive. On one occasion he was winning a small fortune when his companions suggested that he should walk rather than share the luxury of the cart. His rebuttal was a dagger to the heart: “Don’t get sick!” It worked.
We will never forget his patented, emphatic facial expression—the thyroid storm/Sambo saucer stare. It signified that his mind was in hyper-drive. All it took to decipher his emotional state was to cue in on his Anglo-Ethiopian drawl and his eyes—happy, sad, confused, or agitated, but never angry.
His memorial service in Fort Nelson was testimony to the amazing impact that Al had on the town and First Nations community over the lifetime of his practice. The community hall was filled to capacity and the Internet feed was viewed in Canada, US, Europe, and Africa. During the service we learned that Al was a giver and not a taker. With his remarkable intellect and curiosity he created a standard of care that is a tribute to rural medicine. We learned that he did not hesitate to purchase an ultrasound machine when the provincial government would not provide funding for one, and then recruited healthy guinea pigs, including the mayor, to expand his knowledge base.
In addition, he created a foundation committed to village irrigation, school construction, and enhanced medical care in his beloved Ethiopia. He was also committed to funding university tuition for his 11 nieces and nephews. Those who wish to support Al’s philanthropic work can make contributions to Dr Kassa’s Memorial Trust at local banks.
A bright star has been extinguished before its time. Al arrived on the scene the year that Betty and Leah lost Jason, age 11, to a rare CNS tumor. On the day of Al’s death Leah put it all into perspective. “Uncle Jack,” she said, “Al saved our lives. He’s happy. He got what he wanted. He would be confused by all the fuss. He’s already home in Africa.”
Family and friends will escort him to Ethiopia to see him laid to rest beside his priest father. Our lives will never be the same. The mold of the lion in winter has been broken.
—Jack Albrecht, MD
—Ruth Albrecht, MD