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Catalyst for good

A Q&A with Tribute Award recipient Dr. Peter Collingwood

Campus and Community

By Michael Pickard

Here’s a tricky interview assignment: try to get a humble, altruistic, all around good guy to tell you about all of his accomplishments.

Getting anything even remotely close to swagger out of Dr. Peter Collingwood, BMS ’79, MD ’81, and the recipient of the 2019 J.D. Eaton Award, which recognizes outstanding volunteer contributions to Memorial University, is impossible. In order to learn more about the good things he has done, persistence is necessary. And it’s not because he hasn’t done all that much.

Some people know him as an innovative doctor who has pioneered his own methods and techniques in interventional radiology. Others know him through Memorial as a professor and researcher.

Many of his students have been the recipients of his generosity as a benefactor and supporter. And still others may simply know him as “that guy” who is always there to lend a hand.

MP: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? How did you decide to become a student at Memorial?

PC: I grew up in the east end of St. John’s. I suppose I was a typical kid – I attended Bishop Feild and Prince of Wales Collegiate. I knew from a pretty young age I wanted to go to university, and at that time, pretty much everyone in St. John’s who was going to university went to Memorial, and not out of the province.

I didn’t even consider going anywhere else, which is quite different from today – there was not really a decision: I was going to university, so I was going to MUN, and I don’t regret it for a second.

MP: Did you always want to be a doctor? How did you know?

PC: I was in Grade 7, and my uncle, Dr. Bill Collingwood, was working as a physician in the Department of Health. He said something very specific to me: “Peter, you should be a doctor, and you should be a specialist.” I was not certain what that meant, but it stuck with me. Uncle Bill made a huge difference in motivating me.

He was a special man. Even 40 years after his death, people still ask me: “Are you related to Dr. Bill Collingwood?” That showed me the importance of trying to be as good a person as I could be.

“[Memorial] transcends the province: If you care about this place, you have to care about Memorial.”

I was always good at dealing with people, and I was told I might have the right personality for medicine. So, once I started at Memorial, I made sure to do all the prerequisites: chemistry and biochemistry in particular. From there, everything fell in to place.

This was 45 years ago and the system was different. I came to Memorial after Grade 11 and was in medical school after two years: I started medical school when I was 19.

MP: Tell me about a day in the life of a radiologist. The uninitiated might think it’s looking at x-rays all day.

PC: After medical school and an internship, I spent time in Halifax in internal medicine. I called home and spoke to the head of radiology at Memorial and was invited to an interview.

Little did I know the interview would be with a board of 12 people! We talked for an hour or so, and I went to wait outside. They came back and said “You can start in July.”

“[Volunteering] is not an obligation, but it is the right thing to do.”

My specialty is interventional radiology: think of it as minimally invasive image guided therapy, which includes both procedural and clinical work. So, I use various imaging such as x-ray, ultrasound and cat scan to treat patients with liver, kidney and blood vessel disease and the like.

And I also get the opportunity work with a team and interact directly with patients. It was the right fit for me and eventually I served as national president of the association.

MP: Clearly you have spent your life building a career as a radiologist and medical leader. Yet you have so much time for giving back. Why do you do it?

PC: This is a two-part answer, with two very important distinctions. One, I give back because somebody asked me. That’s how you start, and that is really important. It is a key factor that a lot of people forget when looking for volunteers. You have to ask them; they rarely simply step up.

But also, two, I give back because Memorial University is the most important organization in Newfoundland and Labrador. And there are a lot of important organizations. Try to truly imagine what our province would be like without Memorial. Sometimes politicians attach or detach from it or use it as a hot potato.

But it transcends the province: If you care about this place, you have to care about Memorial.

“You get to see them as students becoming good physicians – that is the most rewarding part of doing this.”

When you decide to give back at a higher level, you have to go all in. It sounds cliché, but you can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. And for me, it’s easy because it is so rewarding. I feel good and I see the benefits every day, and I like to encourage others in the university to do these things.

It is not an obligation, but it is the right thing to do. This perspective brings me full circle back to what I learned from my Uncle Bill.

MP: So much of your volunteer and community giving is done in concert with your wife, Deborah. Tell me a bit about this partnership.

PC: For something that takes time and effort, and something that involves financial resources, it is important to have both of us behind these kinds of endeavours.

Debbie is a motivator and a fantastic supporter every step of the way. I am often gone from 6:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. . . . this level of commitment requires a partner who understands and supports the commitment. We are a good team! It is more worthwhile doing this as shared experience.

MP: You have an incredibly close connection to Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine – from mentorship to fundraising to training to scholarships and general volunteering. What’s your favourite part of giving your time and expertise?

PC: What I like the most is when I see the students who are supported. These young women and men work so hard. So, for example, giving them a scholarship is also about treating them well because they deserve it.

Debbie and I have been invited to a scholarship winner’s wedding, and have often been called on for advice outside. It really goes beyond radiology and medicine in general: I have given people thoughts on career plans and so on. It means a lot.

In addition to things like traditional benefactor support, you get to see them as students becoming good physicians – that is the most rewarding part of doing this. Also, if being involved in the fundraising for the Faculty of Medicine, it is seeing the growth in students. It makes such a difference to me and Debbie.

MP: What vision do you have for Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine in the future? What are the keys to continued success?

PC: The Faculty of Medicine is doing such great things today, but what I would like to see grow is an area that I have witnessed in other locations: a closer relationship to the larger community in the province. It is not quite as evident at Memorial, maybe because there are not as many corporate headquarters here.

I think we have the opportunity to have a wider connection between the community and medical alumni. This would benefit us culturally and would be beneficial for students, for research and for the faculty.

MP: What was your reaction when you heard you were being awarded the J.D. Eaton Award for 2019?

PC: I was very humbled and incredibly grateful. It made me extra happy because I knew Doug Eaton, for whom the award is named, so on a personal level it made it very gratifying and satisfying.

To be honoured by my university . . . well, it is among the greatest achievements that I have ever had. To be honest – I really like supporting Memorial. It’s a place I care about deeply and is worth supporting. That said, it is nice to be recognized, though it is not at all why I do this sort of thing.

The 38th annual Alumni Tribute Awards will take place on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, at the Signal Hill Campus in St John’s.

Tickets (individuals and tables) can be purchased online. For additional inquiries, please call the office of Alumni Engagement at 709-864-4354, toll-free at 1-877-700-4081 or email rsvpalumni@mun.ca.

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