Well before training as a surgeon with a specialty in spinal trauma and reconstruction, Eugene Wai knew he wanted to combine his love of science with his desire to help others. As a young man, he was influenced by Hawkeye Pierce on the television series M*A*S*H, a talented doctor known for his humanity and compassion under wartime conditions. Like Hawkeye, Eugene knows that making a difference in the lives of people takes more than finely-honed surgical skills.
“The reality is that a spine surgeon can only help a small number of people who are seeking relief or improvement of their condition,” says Eugene. “So first, I can help by listening to patients more, being empathetic, and connecting on a personal level. And second, I can look for ways beyond my technical skillset as a surgeon to reach more people and have a greater impact on the spinal cord injury community. That’s been more of a focus in the past few years.”
Outside of the lab and the operating room, Eugene has two passions: improve the flow of patients with back pain through the healthcare system—getting to the right resources and specialists in a timely manner—and provide more community-wide supports to build better overall health.
“Spinal surgery is like rescuing people downriver who are drowning,” he says. “That’s important. That’s needed. But I would also like to move upstream, to help prevent an emergency as much as possible. That means focusing on lifestyle: exercise, nutrition, sleep and stress management. It’s better to rely less on medical technologies, when possible. There are interventions that help ward off injury and also treat pain. But there isn’t a coordinated way to harness and deliver them.”
Eugene wants to work more at the regional and provincial level to help people access appropriate care and support. Joining the Board of Directors at SCIO is one way to do that. Another is to help develop a technological platform that improves the coordination of health services for people with spinal cord injuries. The ideal would be a centralized, interactive online resource that integrates artificial intelligence and analytics with a full range of health providers.
“We can improve the virtual care model in general, so those with mobility challenges can be served better without having to travel to a health centre,” he says. “A virtual resource can also improve overall community health, which would help to prevent injury.”
In the meantime, before bringing these future ambitions to life, Eugene has one overarching priority.
“As a member of the SCIO Board, I have a lot to learn and a lot to do,” he says. “And it all begins with listening to people. Logic, analysis and technical skills have always played a large part in my work as a researcher and surgeon. But empathy is just as important. So I’m here to listen first.”