January 23, 2014
Story and Photo by Sherri Gallant
A longtime Lethbridge physician and surgeon has been presented with a prestigious long-service award from the Alberta Medical Association.
Dr. Harold Prokopishyn served in the Lethbridge area for more than 50 years, treating some families across five generations. He served patients at Chinook Regional Hospital and at a practice at the Haig Clinic, retiring three years ago.
Yet he remains a familiar face in the halls at the hospital, where it’s not unusual to find him in consultation with a colleague who’s stopped to ask for his advice.
“I’m still busy,” he says. “I’m a trustee on the board of Chinook Regional Hospital Foundation, which I enjoy, and I’m sort of a walking encyclopedia around the hospital, after being chief of surgery for 45 years and chief of staff for 36 years.”
The eldest of seven kids raised on a farm near Foam Lake, Sask., Prokopishyn studied to become a teacher. He was accepted into dentistry after teaching school for four years, and after his first year, the Dean of Medicine convinced him to pursue medicine instead.
Were it not for his father, none of it might have happened, because when Prokopishyn was a boy, his right thumb was crushed in an accident on the farm.
“The doctor wanted to amputate it,” he recalls, “but my dad wouldn’t let him. He said, ‘He’s right-handed and he’ll probably need that thumb.’ I’m so grateful to my dad for that. In the operating room, I could tie knots with it better than I could with a normal thumb.”
He received his medical degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1959, followed by an internship and general surgery residency at Saskatoon City Hospital and Johnston-Willis Hospital in Richmond, Va.
“When I was in Virginia, I was trained by American army surgeons from the Second World War and Vietnam,” he recalls. “They were prepping me to go to Vietnam, but I said that’s one place I’m not going.”
The invitation from Lethbridge came at about that time and, in 1966, he began practising at Lethbridge (now Chinook) Regional Hospital.
He established a full Department of Surgery at the hospital. implementing strict standards of surgical care.
“When I came to Lethbridge, there were only general practitioners doing surgery here,” says Prokopishyn. “The board asked me to improve on that and I said, ‘Yes, we’ll make this a place of surgical excellence.’ Every individual in the hospital with privileges in surgery then had to have a fellowship or they couldn’t operate here. The hospital is now a place of surgical excellence; with the same calibre of surgical staff you would have working in any major hospital in Alberta.”
A Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada and the American College of Surgeons, Prokopishyn began his service with the Alberta Medical Association in 1977 as a member of the Committee on Hospitals. Thereafter, he served on the Committee on Anesthetic and Operative Deaths, the Assessment Advisory Committee and, most recently, the Representative Forum as a regional delegate.
He also served three years as secretary of the Alberta Association of General Surgeons.
But now he’s enjoying his retirement years.
“When I hear the sirens at night now, I just kind of turn onto my side and say ‘Thank goodness I don’t have to get up for that any more.’ I worked many nights in the emergency department. Gunshot wounds, knife wounds – you name it,” he says.
“And as chief assistant for the department of obstetrics and gynecology, I was up many nights assisting the obstetricians doing C-sections. I enjoyed all of it.”
Prokopishyn’s wife Loreen died in 2008, just shy of the couple’s 50th anniversary.
They had no children.