Going where aid is needed
Dr. Harry Owens has traveled around the world using his medical skills to treat the sick and needy
Posted February 4, 2007
“I was 38 years old when I realized that I had probably retired at 35.”
Dr. Harry Owens had just completed three years cruising up and down the Amazon River in the rainforests of Brazil on a hospital boat, bringing medical education and care to isolated villages.
He was still involved with the Brazilian program when he reflected on his time in the Amazon and realized he was doing exactly what he wanted.
“My definition of retirement is doing what you want, where you want, when you want, how much you want and with whom you want,” Owens said. “That’s what I realized I was doing, and I realized, ‘You know, I think I’m retired.’”
Owens, now 67, said he is 32 years into retirement, although one wouldn’t guess that from a resumé filled with remote medical experience, including his latest stop as lead physician at McMurdo Station.
Owens discovered his interest in remote areas at a young age. He spent much of his early life in Hawaii, where his father worked as an Academy Award-winning musician, but he did most of his growing up in Los Angeles.
His family was visiting his grandparents in California in December 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, preventing them from returning to the islands. They decided to re-establish their lives in Los Angeles, but Owens spent a lot of time in the years that followed on his aunt and uncle’s sheep ranch in northern Arizona.
“Having had the experience of living in a city like Los Angeles and living out in the middle of northern Arizona and seeing the contrast,” he said, “I much preferred the great outdoors. That’s where I gravitated, and I knew that when it was my time to make an adult choice, that I’d be picking the rural life.”
Owens graduated medical school in 1966. It was around that time that a large amount of U.S. troops headed to Vietnam.
“We were all being drafted one way or another for Vietnam,” he said. “I joined the U.S. Public Health Service and requested remote assignment with Eskimos in Alaska because I was really interested in general practice.
I started working north of the Arctic Circle. In those days, we’d go out by dog sled and bush airplane to the outlying Eskimo villages. And I loved every minute of that.”
Owens’ work in Alaska started him down the path of remote medicine. His next career-defining job came in 1973, when he accepted the opportunity to work on a large charity hospital ship that sailed around the world, doing one-year stints in locations that needed the onboard medical staff’s services.
“I spent a year in northeast Brazil,” said Owens. “That opened up the whole vista for international health, which is what I subsequently spent a lot of my time doing.”
This newfound interest led him next to the epiphany-inspiring work in the Amazon and later to a remote hospital on the Serengeti plains of Tanzania. He returned to Tanzania for a second time in 2006 to continue his work with the Maasai people, right before coming down to the Ice.
“McMurdo is way uptown compared to what I’m used to working with. At the remote hospital I worked at with the Maasai, we didn’t even have an EKG machine. We were lucky if we had electricity for a few hours a day,” Owens said.
“At that location, we had a lot of tuberculosis, a lot of other infectious diseases, a lot of kids with malnutrition, some lion bites, some snake bites, a few cape buffalo gorings, a few of those type things that are expected.”
Owens has made a lifestyle out of his work, custom designing each year to find the balance he desires. He said he has chosen to stay single and avoid ties to too much “stuff” that would limit that ability.
Owens has seen much of the world while bringing his services to inaccessible areas, but travel itself has never been much of a motivator for him and has normally just come connected to his work.
“In many ways, I get to places that nobody gets to, and in many ways I don’t get to places that most people get to,” he said. “So, I haven’t ‘done’ Europe, and I haven’t ‘done’ the Orient, but I get [to] places that most folks don’t get to see.”
“It’s nice to go back and just do my hermit time right on the river,” he said. “I’m not there very much though, normally only about 60 days out of the year. This past year, it’s only been about 40 days.”
So, are there any plans of a more traditional retirement in the future for Owens?
“If by retire you mean quit, not do much, sit in the rocking chair in front of the cabin and write the memoirs, then as long as my physical health is holding out, I’ll probably continue to do a variety of overseas stuff, as well as up in Alaska and maybe back down here.”
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