London surgeon clinches national award for military tours of duty

Dr. Vivian McAlister has been given an award for his work as a military surgeon in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti. McAlister is also a surgeon at LHSC and a professor in the Schulich School of Medicine in London, Ont. Mike Hensen/The London Free Press

Share Adjust Comment Print

On the operating table, he saw the worst from the longest combat mission in Canadian history, the war in Afghanistan.

Now, he’s retired from the military and back to being a full-time surgeon at Southwestern Ontario’s largest hospital and a professor at Western University’s medical school, but he’s never left the lessons from six overseas missions behind.

A tour of duty was never on Lt. Col and army surgeon Vivian McAlister’s radar until he attended a presentation by one of his former medical students, an anesthesiologist, returning from a medical mission in Afghanistan in 2006. McAlister enlisted when he was 52 years old.

“We had a significant requirement for surgery in Afghanistan at the time. We were very busy in that period,” McAlister said. “I was quite shocked at the difficult surgery that was required over there and the magnitude of the injuries.”

“It was one of the best things I did in my career was to join the military and the team that I was part of was unbelievable. Comparing it to all the different surgical teams I’ve been involved in, it was far and away the best.”

McAlister is this year’s recipient of a Canadian Medical Association award named for one of Southwestern Ontario’s most famous military doctors John McCrae, the Guelph-born First World War physician who penned the immortal poem In Flanders Fields.

The John McCrae Memorial Award is presented to Canadian Armed forces medical personnel for exemplary service. McAlister will receive the national recognition at an Aug. 11 gala in Toronto.

McAlister was a trauma surgeon in Afghanistan, working to save the lives of catastrophically injured soldiers in the war zone. McAlister and his medical team worked in tents, at military base hospitals and would sometimes set up operating rooms inside abandoned homes in the field. They went wherever they were needed.

Dr. Vivian McAlister has been given an award for his work as a military surgeon in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti. McAlister is also a surgeon at LHSC and a professor in the Schulich School of Medicine in London, Ont. Mike Hensen/The London Free Press

“We saw some injuries that we’ve never seen in Canada, thankfully. Honestly I think we’d have a hard time handling them as well as we did in Afghanistan,” McAlister said.

More than 160 Canadians were killed, and nearly 2,200 wounded, in Canada’s $12-billion Afghan mission between 2001 and 2014. Fourteen soldiers from Southwestern Ontario — 13 men and one woman — were killed, including Trooper Mark Wilson of London who died in 2006 after the armoured vehicle he was in struck a roadside bomb.

McAlister and his medical team played an important role in improving the protocols and procedures used to treat soldiers with traumatic injuries, including blast wounds from improvised bombs.

He spent about a decade going back and forth to missions abroad, a way of life that was tough on his family, McAlister said. His longest overseas posting was four months.

He balanced his military missions with his teaching post at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry and his general and transplant surgery position at London Health Sciences Centre’s University Hospital.

“On one occasion, I was at a black tie event here wearing my tuxedo and within 48 hours I was in combat in the desert looking after sick patients,” he said. “We integrated it into our lives. That’s what the team did.”

He also went to Iraq with his military team and, when a major earthquake killed more than 100,000 in Haiti in January 2010, he was among the Canadian medical personnel that went to help.

McAlister said his overseas missions – and the “fantastic” medical personnel he met along the way – have had a lasting impact on him, and changed him for the better.

“I think it made me a more mature and quieter surgeon. I know that when times are tough, the best thing to do is actually take a deep breath and slow down,” he said. “I don’t sweat the small things anymore.”

Vivian McAlister

  • London surgeon joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 2006 at 52 years old
  • Participated in six overseas medical missions to Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti
  • Professor at Western University’s medical school and a general and transplant surgeon at London Health Sciences Centre’s University Hospital
  • Recipient of the Canadian Medical Association’s 2019 John McCrae Memorial Award for his military medical service


We want to hear from you

Send us opinions, comments and other feedback.

E-mail your letter to: (no attachments please)

Or go to Letters should be kept to 150 words.


    This Week's Flyers


    Postmedia is pleased to bring you a new commenting experience. We are committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information.