Healing arts

Black and white photo of Vincent Lam.

What drives novelist and doctor Vincent Lam to take on two challenging careers?

For accomplished writer and dedicated doctor Vincent Lam (BSc ʾ94), variety is the spice of life. Most people would be content with successfully completing medical school and becoming an emergency physician. But Lam is not most people.

While saving lives as a doctor, he wrote a short story collection,Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was adapted into an HBO Canada mini-series, and a critically-acclaimed 2012 novel, The Headmaster’s Wager. He is a violinist, a regular speaker at medical conferences, a pharmaceutical research consultant, a father of three young children and an avid cyclist.

Does he see himself as an ultra-achiever?

“I just feel that life is short,” said Lam in a recent telephone interview from Vancouver as he waited for a connecting flight to Whistler, British Columbia, to attend the Whistler Writers’ Festival. “When it comes to professions, I think it is really easy to say ‘OK, I just have to fulfill the requirements of this package and then I will get my paycheque.’ Maybe for some people that is sufficient satisfaction — and that is fine — but I have always felt itchy for the next thing.”

That eagerness to move on to the next chapter of life is one reason why, after 13 years as an emergency physician in Toronto, he began retraining in addiction medicine in September 2013. He says he had become somewhat disenchanted with emergency care. He was treating patients who had often fallen through the cracks of the health care system or was chasing after diagnostic images and patient information.

In June, he made the transition from emergency medicine to addiction medicine by taking a job at the True North Medical Centre, an inner-city Toronto clinic at the corner of Queen Street East and Church Street.

So is his new setting fodder for his next novel? We’ll have to wait and see. Lam is working on his next book.

Lam graciously agreed to be one of the people featured in the University of Ottawa’s Defy the Conventional re-branding exercise, which highlights extraordinary alumni, professors, researchers and students. The stories draw attention to those who push boundaries, surpass expectations and combine disciplines to create something new.

When he was studying biology at uOttawa, Lam used to earn extra loonies by busking in the Byward Market, in between summer jobs at research labs. He played classical violin and spent several years in the Ottawa Youth Orchestra.

Since the age of 14, Lam’s first love has been writing. At age 15, he won a competition, which enabled him to spend a week at a creative writing school with novelist Jane Urquhart. He kept writing all through medical school and as a young doctor, with his medical experiences informing his short stories. While working as a doctor on an Arctic cruise ship in 2002, he saw Canadian author Margaret Atwood on board and sheepishly asked her to read some of his writing. She later emailed him to say he could indeed write, and suggested that he work on something about his experience dealing with the SARS outbreak. It would become the story “Contact Tracing” from Bloodletting. At the 2006 Giller Prize ceremony, Atwood herself introduced Lam and called Bloodletting “a stunning debut.”

His first novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, is a book of personal significance for him. Its main character, Percival Chen, is inspired by his grandfather. Lam, born in Canada in 1974, draws from his family background as ethnic Chinese living in Cholon, Vietnam. His parents came to Canada before he was born, but he grew up hearing stories about his grandfather’s gambling and love affairs, and about life in Vietnam. Lam visited his grandfather in Brisbane, Australia, went to Vietnam twice, read extensively and spoke to aunts and uncles. The novel tells the fictional story of the headmaster of an English school in Saigon who faces the limits of his connections and wealth when his son gets into trouble with the Vietnamese authorities. He is forced to send him away and, as the Vietnam War escalates and encroaches, Percival Chen finds comfort in a new love interest.

It is often said that medicine and literature are both narrative arts. Margaret Atwood made this point at the Giller ceremony, saying that doctors and fiction writers “both deal in extreme events, both have their fingers on the pulse of life and death, and neither is squeamish about gore on the floor.”
Lam, who has also written a biography of Tommy Douglas, founder of Medicare, and co-authored the guide The Flu Pandemic and You with public health physician Colin Lee, is a big believer in protecting public institutions. Last year, he supported a campaign against cuts to Toronto’s public libraries.
Clearly, Lam will continue to add to his many interests, continuously growing, but with the sharp writer’s eye looking back to his family’s history.


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