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This Lions Gate Hospital maternity nurse is saving lives in Iraq, Liberia and Ukraine

Connecting with youth has helped Ian MacKay cope after seeing some of the worst sides of humanity

Ian MacKay can’t just sit back and watch.

The 33-year-old – who’s the first-ever male maternity nurse at Lions Gate Hospital, who’s a volunteer with Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, who works ski patrol in the winter, who built his own house in Squamish, who coaches at a barbell gym and who’s been on numerous humanitarian aid missions to countries including Liberia during the Ebola crisis and most recently war-torn Ukraine – also has a hard time watching people struggle to open doors.

“This poor guy can’t get a damn coffee to save his life,” MacKay remarks with a mix of laughter and exasperation, as a man struggles to open a stiff glass door at the entrance to Nemesis Coffee, tucked behind The Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver.

MacKay has just gotten off a night shift at LGH, and is trying to explain how a recent experience as a guest on a podcast challenged him to condense all his experiences in a way that others can relate to – but he’s thrown off track by another person battling with the door.

This pushes MacKay’s discomfort over the tipping point. He gets up from the table and walks to the entrance. For his hunky physique, the problem door is no match.

“We gotta go to a different table, man,” he says upon his return. “I can’t watch any more people trying to get through this door.”

After finding a new place to sit, where the entranceway is out of sight, MacKay starts to open up about his life experiences. A compulsion to put himself where the need is highest weaves through most of them.

“If anyone needs help, I’ll drop things and go in a heartbeat,” he said. Partially, that attitude comes from his positive upbringing, and role models like his grandfather – an engineer who built schools in Africa in the 1970s – and his mother, who’s also a career nurse.

Another part stems from a desire to escape the slow life of a small hometown. Growing up in Squamish, what do you do? Sports, for one. Before he committed to a career in nursing and international aid, MacKay pursued skeleton to a high level – but ultimately decided to go a different direction.

“Outside of sport, it’s the party lifestyle and drugs,” MacKay said. “I can definitely compare the work I do overseas to drug and sport. You’re always looking for that next high, that bigger high.”

Another driving force is a natural momentum that’s built over time. After the tragic death of his friend Sam Eves in 2007, MacKay got his first exposure to the aid development world. At age 19, he joined SAM Project, an organization founded by Eves’s family, which helps communities in Zambia with projects like building wells and supporting dry season agriculture.

Around two years after his work there, in 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, causing a disaster that would claim the lives of more than 200,000 people. Originally, his missionary doctor uncle travelled there, and asked MacKay’s mother to join because his team was short a nurse. She couldn’t go, so she asked her son. But the aid organization said no because MacKay wasn’t a nurse at the time.

How did he respond? “I booked a one-way ticket, which I do not recommend to anybody. But at the time I was just young-and-dumb Ian, and it worked out in my favour.”

Named Time's Person of the Year for work in Ebola crisis

In many cases, inexperienced volunteers can be a burden in high-intensity deployments, but MacKay was able to make himself useful and proved to be an asset to the group. That led to him going back to Haiti on multiple trips, as the battered nation grappled with a deadly cholera outbreak later that same year.

Travelling to Haiti triggered a cascade of events for MacKay that ultimately landed him on a disaster response team in the Eastern Congo. From there, he was deployed to places including the Philippines during typhoon season, Ecuador after a 7.8-magnitude quake killed nearly 700 people, Greece during the refugee crisis and Iraq during the ISIS conflict.

His highest profile deployment was to Liberia and West Africa in 2014, during the Ebola Crisis, where the virus ravaged West Africa – infecting 28,600 and killing 11,325 people, according to the World Health Organization.

“I’d never seen death to that extent,” he said. “Ebola is a terrible, terrible virus.”

MacKay was part of the initial response team in Liberia. They had no researched drugs, no antidote, no vaccine.

“Our mortality rate was in the 90-per-cent range,” MacKay said. “It was a time of vulnerability for everybody because – at that point, I’d been through war, I’d had guns pointed at me – but Ebola was this invisible weapon … you couldn’t see the threat but you knew it was there.”

It wasn’t long before the pathogen infiltrated his team, and his colleagues started getting sick. There was anxiety around how they contracted the virus because its mode of transmission was unknown at the time. Contact tracing revealed that MacKay had been exposed. It was a long two weeks waiting through the incubation period.

Luckily, he never became ill. But his team’s medical director, Dr. Kent Brantly, did. He was one of the few doctors to survive the disease. After recovering, Brantly became an advocate for international efforts to end the outbreak.

In recognition of their bravery and sacrifice, Ebola fighters were named Time’s Person of the Year, a list that includes MacKay. While he calls the recognition “a neat opportunity,” being Person of the Year became something for his friends to tease him about rather than a badge of distinction he parades around.

What’s harder to downplay is the impact that being there had on his mental health.

Iraq also got into his head.

“[I was] seeing a different side of humanity that your average person doesn’t see, the brutal side of what one human can do to another human, and that was a challenge,” MacKay said. “When I got home and started to process it, I ended up in a bit of a tough place mentally. You don’t have a lot of peers that have been to war here.”

Despite mandatory debriefings, he internalized his emotions. MacKay always had support from friends and family, but there’s a side of war that you don’t feel comfortable talking to people about unless they also have been through it, he explained. But what MacKay eventually found to be his greatest medicine was learning to be open and vulnerable about his experiences, and especially to show weakness, sometimes in very public settings.

After his first few deployments, MacKay began speaking to youth in high schools.

“I realized that was the one thing that really helped me process and give me purpose again,” he said. “To show that vulnerability, I think it’s important for the upcoming generation to see.

“If I can help inspire one kid to help find their path and guide them to maybe get into the global aid world, or even just domestically helping,” that’s a reward in itself, MacKay said.

Another important coping mechanism for MacKay is a sense of humour and levity that he carries through both his personal and professional lives.

“If you ask my colleagues they’ll be quick to say that I tend to keep things quite light and positive, and keep people laughing and look at the positives of even the darkest situations,” he said. Interestingly, it can be easier to see how something can go right when you’ve experienced how everything can go wrong.

“This morning was a prime example, working with a mother in preterm labour who is likely going to have a premature child, and to be able to look her in the eye and say, ‘This is not an ideal situation. But we’ve got an [operating room] 20 feet that way, and we’ve got a NICU 20 feet that way. So if we have this baby today, we are lucky to have the resources within 100 feet to make sure you and your baby are both safe,” MacKay said.

Career in prenatal care started with a tragic loss of life

At this point, you may be wondering why a six-foot-three, 225-pound adrenaline junkie ended up becoming a maternity nurse. The answer to how MacKay got into the business of bringing life into the world starts with death.

In 2010, one of the most heart-wrenching tragedies he witnessed was a Haitian mother and her baby dying in labour. “I feel like that was one of the most traumatizing experiences,” he said. “I’ll never forget.”

Lack of access to health care was never so apparent to MacKay as it was in that moment.

“They made it to a team of specialized health care professionals that had the resources, and we did everything we could, and we had this unfortunate loss,” he said. “Prenatal care is one of those simple things that we take for granted here … that allows us to pick up on red flags, monitor expecting mothers more closely, that these other areas just don’t have access to,” he said.

There’s a direct line between that event and the care MacKay provides at Lions Gate Hospital today. One part of the fulfillment comes from delivering that essential care for mothers in labour, and another part is bringing his unique Ian MacKay-brand energy to that setting.

“It’s a shock to a lot of people when I walk into the room, and I enjoy that,” he said with a grin. “I’ve always prided myself on being a little bit different and taking a bit of a different path.”

This year has been different for MacKay. Although he’s been working full-time – mostly in emergency at Squamish General Hospital – and building his house, he describes it as “the first time I’ve had off in years.”

Of course, MacKay means time off from volunteer work abroad. “It’s a balance,” he said. “I’m not getting paid [for that work]…. I’m a single guy living in Squamish with a mortgage.

“I could spend the majority of my time overseas. I mean, that’s my passion. That’s how I became a nurse. However, it’s just not realistic.”

But now, after a summer of working and unwinding on the West Coast, MacKay is heading to Central Asia to re-join the pediatric heart surgery team that he’s been volunteering with for the past several years.

After a rare, no-strings attached vacation in Croatia, he’ll be spending two weeks with the team in Uzbekistan, where they’ll be helping to strengthen the nation’s cardiac surgery program, mostly through training.

In spite of, or due to, his past experiences, MacKay said his nerves will kick in when he gets to the airport.

“I’ve never been in Uzbekistan before … I didn’t even know where it was, until after I agreed to go. So of course, there’s always going to be nerves going into a new environment and an unfamiliar hospital,” he said.

“Thankfully I’m working with a lot of the same team members that I’ve worked with before … but every environment, every country presents different challenges. And I don’t think this will be any different.”