Dr Kenneth G. Atkinson was born in Vancouver on 12 October 1929. His father died when he was only 7, and with a sister he was raised by an industrious widowed mother, a teacher, along with the help of grandparents.
Dr Kenneth G. Atkinson was born in Vancouver on 12 October 1929. His father died when he was only 7, and with a sister he was raised by an industrious widowed mother, a teacher, along with the help of grandparents. Ken showed himself to be hardworking, studious, and eager to explore. He learned independence and responsibility and earned money delivering papers and doing odd jobs. He showed good academic ability, became a member of the renowned BC Boys Band, and enjoyed church youth groups.
From the time his father passed away he dreamed of becoming a doctor. He never wavered from that desire, and headed for UBC after completing high school to major in biology (especially zoology), which gave him his undergraduate prerequisites for medical school. He was admitted to the UBC Medical School in 1951 and graduated in 1955, following which he was accepted into an internship at the Royal Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario. Not unlike many medical doctors, he found time one weekend after medical school graduation to get married (to Lora) and then rush off to his internship. On completion he entered into a family practice with associates in Prince George from 1956 to 1960. After a few years, he, Lora, and their young family moved back to Vancouver where he was accepted into surgical residency at UBC. Four years later he completed his residency and joined in surgical practice with Dr Ernest McAmmond, emphasizing a practice then called proctology—disorders of the anorectum and colon.
Dr Atkinson was at the cutting edge of his special interests in surgery of the large intestine, rectum, and anus, and at that time his special interest was ahead of the profession itself, there being then no specific specialty defined by the Royal College (what is now called colorectal surgery). It was also a time when new diagnostic techniques and equipment were being developed, particularly fiber-optic scopes through which the entire bowel could be visualized, and when ultrasound and CT scanning were becoming available to replace conventional X-ray imaging. The hospital was not happy to fund this new and expensive technology, so Ken bought his own scoping equipment, trained himself in its use, and became a leader of that branch of a new and advancing specialty. As a result he became a leader in BC and across Canada in colorectal surgery, influencing its growth through patient care, surgical contacts, conferences, and colleagues. His experience and surgical skills attracted the most challenging cases to his practice at St. Paul’s Hospital, especially in the area of inflammatory bowel disease, the well-known Crohn disease, and ulcerative colitis. It also stimulated him to establish a specialty clinic and nurses’ training program at St. Paul’s Hospital in the skills of enterostomal therapy for the management of surgical stomas and difficult wound care.
Over my many years of association with Ken—in our work, our shared responsibilities, in tough times and easy times, in our practice—he was always thoughtful, considerate, cooperative, pleasant, diligent, and supportive. He had a calm demeanor, he did not get ruffled when the going was tough in the OR, and he did not shout, swear, get openly angry or annoyed. He was technically adept in his surgical skills and was courageous when needed in difficult surgical moments. He was a great thinker, drawing on his vast experience when surgical situations became challenging. He was available especially to his often very demanding patients. He taught us patience, and he manifested a firm and quiet confidence that was settling, reassuring, and therapeutic.
Ken was also involved in the early development of intravenous feeding for his intestinal-compromised patients. He was awarded for his teaching by students, colleagues, and faculty. He was president of several surgical societies. He did all the responsible jobs required of him in his department, hospital, and university. He was efficient, maintained a loyal office staff to help keep him sane, and gave quality time to his wife, Lora; daughters, Kathryn, Pamela, and Janet; and son, David.
Retired since 1995, as professor emeritus of clinical surgery at UBC, he was a solid, smiling, good humored, quietly confident, and effective man who enjoyed his career to the fullest, valued his family above all, and was a man of faith—a true caring Christian gentleman.
When I visited him in his latter days, while he lived with care in Crofton Manor, we connected best through talking about surgical cases or photography. His final event was a stroke from which he passed away on 4 January 2017. The world would be better off if we had more Dr Ken Atkinsons. We will miss him until we meet again, for surely we will.
—Nis Schmidt, MD
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