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Humanitarian doctor, author shares stories from the front lines

Acclaimed author to speak on Oct. 19 as part of Whistler Reads



Dr. James Maskalyk traces his passion for writing to when he was a kid.

"I like sentences. I like clarifying the world's details into words that sound sweet in my own head. I like getting it right, and pulling from the noise of the world. It's as simple as that," he explained, after finishing up a shift at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital.

On Oct. 19 Maskalyk will be in Whistler to discuss his acclaimed new book, Life On the Ground Floor.

Maskalyk, who originally hails from Alberta and has an easy-going, friendly personality, has played an instrumental role in developing Ethiopia's emergency-medicine program. He began working with a team at Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa in the late 2000s, and subsequently helped set up a collaboration between the University of Toronto and Black Lion that trains Ethiopian emergency-room physicians. Through his work, he has trained some of the country's first emergency-room doctors.

Ethiopia has a life expectancy rate of 56 years old and is ranked 174 (out of 187 countries) on the United Nations Human Development Index.

For Maskalyk, the goal was to draw full portraits of the physicians he works with.

"What I hope comes through is that these people, who are my friends and colleagues in Ethiopia, are as round and full and beautiful and smart and vibrant and important as any other person I've ever met, and so too are the patients I treat there."

Life on the Ground Floor also weaves in his stories from northern Alberta, where Maskalyk spent time with his ailing grandfather.

"I'm most at ease as a writer when I'm trying to evoke nature," he said. "When I see nature, I slow down: it all becomes simile or metaphor."

Emergency rooms are daunting places. Maskalyk, though, sees the beauty in them, in their swift and democratic nature, where the sickest person gets cared for first.

He also views them as "bellwethers" for society at large.

"I see crystal meth; I see depression; I see GHB overdoses in increasing numbers. And I see an opioid crisis, and I look to see what that tells me about my city. And the same truth can happen in Ethiopia," he said.

The talk will be moderated by Leanna Hutchins, the new program administrator for Whistler Reads.

Hutchins has a long history of humanitarian work herself, having worked with leading aid agencies in the Caucasus and South Sudan. Bringing Maskalyk to Whistler was a golden opportunity, said Hutchins.

"I would have loved to have contact with a doctor who was working overseas as a young person, when I was just starting out and trying to figure out my way in the world," she explained.

She came upon Maskalyk's book by chance, browsing the Penguin Random House website.

"I chose the book because my background is in international humanitarian work," she said.

Life On the Ground Floor, however, has been praised for how it avoids clichéd writing on poverty. It's one of the things that made Hutchins a big fan.

"He's working with these doctors, training them over a number of years, getting them to a level where they're independent and confident and able to deal with all the trauma that is seen," she explained.

The talk will take place at the Audain Art Museum at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students) and can be bought at the door or online at