Looking Back: A Retirement Interview with Dr. Peter Dodek

Throughout their diverse and storied careers, UBC Department of Medicine faculty members acquire a wealth of clinical, educational, and leadership knowledge and skills. We value the experience of our retiring faculty and seek to capture some of their valuable insight and wisdom to share with the UBC Department of Medicine community. We hope that our current faculty will find these perspectives useful as they consider their own career paths.

Dr. Peter Dodek (He/Him/His)

Professor Emeritus

Department of Medicine/Division of Critical Care Medicine

Vancouver, BC

Dr. Peter Dodek was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is a critical care physician, a researcher, and a teacher with a passion for compassionate evidence-based care. Dr. Dodek’s research interests have included determinants of family satisfaction, patient safety, organizational culture, and moral distress in critical care.

Dr. Dodek retired on June 30, 2020 from the Department of Medicine in the Division of Critical Care Medicine and is now poised to continue his research and enjoy his other varied passions – from tap dancing to travelling the world (though admittedly, 2020 did not bode well for wanderlust).


What was your first job at UBC?

My first appointment at UBC was as an instructor. They called it Instructor at the time, but my job was actually to be a researcher. I had a research fellowship and spent 75% of my time doing research; my teaching was done mostly within the clinical domain in the ICU but soon included bedside teaching of internal medicine to third and fourth-year medical students.


Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on a career path in Critical Care Medicine?

It wasn’t just serendipity. I think a lot of it has to do with role models. I had a great role model when I was a medical student in Internal Medicine at the University of Toronto who was a really upbeat and smart person – I just loved that style of approaching work with that kind of energy. The whole idea of problem-solving in internal medicine was of great interest. So my initial inclination was toward Internal Medicine. During my residency in Internal Medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, I spent a lot of time taking care of patients in the Medical Intensive Care Unit. It was rewarding to take care of very sick patients where there was a lot on the line when you made decisions. It was the role modelling of the director in that ICU that directed me into Critical Care. He was both methodical and also extremely compassionate to the patient and their families – I thought that this blend was wonderful. He paid attention to the important medical details but also to the emotions and what matters to the patient and their family.  There was empathy, compassion, and caring. In the mid-80s, there was no formal certification in Critical Care medicine in Canada. However, there was the American Board Certified training in pulmonary medicine that included critical care, so that’s the route that I chose.  I completed a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.


What do you consider to be your career highlight?

In the clinical sphere, I enjoyed working with the nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, dietitians, and other health professionals in the ICU. They were a great team to work with, and it was very gratifying to work as an interprofessional team.

Another highlight was finding my passion and following it. I was able to find this passion for quality improvement and health services research and was one of the founding members of what was then called the Health Research Center, which of course became CHÉOS.

The third highlight is that the people who I worked with at CHÉOS, who were directly involved with my team, were lovely. I think it’s so important to work with nice people.


Who was your most important mentor?

Having a good mentor is an important experience. I learned things from my mentors – and I’ve had so many along the way – that I didn’t learn in medical school. You learn by observing and seeing how people behave and the outcomes of those behaviours.

I’ve already mentioned two of my mentors: the Internist at the University of Toronto and the director in the ICU in Los Angeles – both of whom were important mentors. During my fellowship, my lab supervisor was a mentor to me – he was a smart scientist from whom I learned a lot about science.

At UBC, I would say the most important mentor I had was Peter Paré. First of all, Peter was just a friendly down to earth person. He was very caring about junior faculty and seeing that people got nurtured along in an uncertain pathway. I would say he was one of the most important mentors in the UBC system. He taught me about ways of doing experiments and also about thinking ahead in terms of the grant cycle for research, which was invaluable. To always be one step ahead at all times – in other words, having done some experiments that would be the preliminary data for your grant application -which shows the grant reviewers that you can do what you say you’re going to do. I thought it was wonderful advice.

Peter was never afraid of any challenge. Later on, when I changed my career from cell biology and whole animal physiology to health services research, Peter was the person that was asked by the hospital to help set up this Health Research Center (now CHÉOS). I was one of the founding members of CHÉOS – I was appreciative of Peter’s wisdom and foresight to see the need for this kind of grouping of health researchers and clinical researchers and grateful for his guidance through that transition.


What advice would you have for a junior faculty member in your field?

It’s those two things that I said were highlights in my career.

One is to find your passion and to follow it. It’s easier said than done – it means trying different things, meeting different people, and finding out what excites you. Try all of these things out as electives and test out different areas that you are excited about. It’s like that child’s toy where you write on the sheet of cellophane and lift it up and everything disappears. It’s like that – starting with a clean slate and an open mind with new people and new ideas. I highly recommend it. Always aim high in getting the best training exposure and experience that you can get. If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll do it well.

Based on my experience, the second thing that I would say is to work with nice people. It’s difficult to succeed in a setting that is not constructive. Try to find people who are honest and fair and have integrity and spend your time and effort with those folks.


What advice might you have for a senior faculty member at UBC approaching retirement?

You can prepare right from the beginning of your career – that would be things like cultivating outside interests and hobbies. Dedicate time to family life and outside interests, but know that it takes a commitment and will to make it work. It keeps you in touch with the people who are important to you and expands your horizons in terms of learning about other things and meeting people who are outside of medicine. This prepares you for doing more of these things when you retire – and what a tragedy to not have spent any time doing these things that bring you joy in life.

Another thing I encourage people to do if they can is to give back in some way. It’s been a privilege to work as a faculty member, and I would encourage staying involved in UBC initiatives. I’m also interested in healthcare in low and middle-income countries, and I’ve been to Nepal three times where I am teaching and working with a consortium of ICUs in south Asia and helping them with quality improvement work. Giving back is so important because we’ve been lucky to have the careers that we’ve had.


What do you miss most about working at UBC?

Those nice people at CHÉOS who I worked with. I stopped doing clinical work almost 7 years ago and I miss working with the nurses, respiratory therapists, and other health professionals. I value their dedication to the patients.


What did you do on your first official day of retirement?

I had a gradual transition because what I did was a bit different. First of all, when I stopped doing clinical, I just started working five days a week doing my research. Then I gradually reduced this time over the next few years to two days a week. On the other days, I got to focus on my outside interests. My first day of retirement didn’t look much different from the day before in the sense that I am still working from home and doing meetings for research, but my time is more flexible.


What is something we might be surprised to learn about you? What are those outside passions/interests for you?

There are a few! First of all, I’ve been a tap-dancer since 1981. I’ve been smitten with tap ever since I started. I have a lot of fun taking lessons and performing.

I have also always enjoyed music, and I took piano lessons as a child but then stopped for medical school. Then 45 years later, I started piano lessons again. I’m taking both jazz piano lessons and jazz/blues/funk organ lessons and loving it.

Finally, I run a book club that we started almost 20 years ago. It’s evolved into a very sustainable and informal book club with a variety of different people in it, not just physicians. We read books that I might not have known about, which I appreciate because it expands my horizons.


Last question, what books are you reading in your book club?

We are currently reading “Poor Economics” – written by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo – the two people who just won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics. It’s kind of related to health services research because these two economists from MIT have conducted evidence-based randomized control trials looking at the effectiveness of different interventions to address poverty. We like to alternate between non-fiction and fiction, so the last fiction book we read was “Catch-22“ by Joseph Heller. It is a classic book – a satirical novel on the military in World War II and one that I quite enjoyed.

The Department of Medicine is incredibly grateful to Dr. Dodek for agreeing to be interviewed and being so generous with his time and insight.