His life of service is far from over, but Dr. Robert O’Dowda Stephens of Warkworth, Ontario was recently honoured for the work he has accomplished so far.
Dr. Robert Stephens, C.M.
On May 4 at Rideau Hall, Dr. Bob, who serves on the Board of Directors of Health Partners International of Canada (HPIC), was invested with the Order of Canada for voluntary service and health care.
This year also marks his 60th anniversary as a medical doctor, having graduated from the University of Toronto in 1947. The next year, he married Ruth Petrie, a nurse, who was a constant companion until her death in 2006.
He recalls their short term mission to an Indian reservation in northern British Columbia two days after their wedding. On the trip there, they were called on to use a rope ladder to transfer from their ferry to a dubious little craft to carry them inland. “She just did it,” he says. “I knew then that I had married the right woman. She was game for anything. It served us well in the years ahead.”
The years ahead included a year of French immersion and tropical disease training in Belgium, to prepare the Stephens for their work as missionaries in the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Stephens began by replacing the only physician at a hospital run by the African Inland Mission (AIM) while the doctor went on home leave. After their year at the AIM hospital, the Stephens went on to establish service 120 km further north. After 10 years, they had built a 100-bed hospital with outpatient services, nurse and midwife training and four satellite clinics.
“The big health issues back then were malaria, leprosy, intestinal parasites and pneumonia,” says Stephens. “And a lot of people had what we called sleeping sickness from being bitten by tsi tsi flies. There were snakebites and wounds from leopards, elephants and buffalos. Burns were frequent too because of the cooking fires in the middle of people’s huts.”
As Bob, Ruth and their two children prepared to come home for a year on a regular leave in 1960, the country was moving rapidly toward independence. They were able to leave on the last plane before independence was declared with its ensuing conflict.
Although they did not know it at the time, they would never return to Africa to live.
Because the situation in the new Zaire was still unstable, the family chose to remain in Canada past their one-year leave. Dr. Bob set up a private practice, and was soon heavily solicited to treat missionaries, both leaving and coming home.
He became involved with EMAS, the Evangelical Medical Aid Society, as president in 1968 and eventually as part-time executive director in 1985. When the Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) asked him to come on part-time as their director as well, he left his practice to devote himself full time to these two organizations in 1990.
His work has taken him around the world, especially China, Cuba and Africa, helping in the establishment of medical missions. He has served as a consultant for several Christian organizations including HPIC, Interserve, SIM, and World Relief Canada. Apart from serving on HPIC’s Board, he is also a member of HPIC’s Board Medical Committee.
Although he is now officially retired, Dr. Bob says he is asking God to lead him into this new chapter of his life. “I think I know my place in the body of Christ,” he says. “I am a red blood cell, carrying oxygen to all the other parts. I just have to keep moving.”
He says he was shocked when he received a letter from the Governor General, advising him that he was being appointed a member of the Order of Canada. But he says he is glad that the government recognizes the value of voluntary service. “I am accepting this honour as a representative of all medical missionaries.”
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean’s citation of Dr. Robert O. Stephens:
Robert O. Stephens, C.M.
Member of the Order of Canada
Robert Stephens has greatly contributed to Canada’s reputation as a caring and giving nation. For over 50 years, he has tirelessly worked to provide health care and medical treatment for the world’s most needy. In 1949, as a young doctor, he went to the Belgian Congo, and, over the next decade, set up a local hospital with nursing and midwifery schools as well as satellite clinics. Throughout his career, he provided leadership to the Evangelical Medical Aid Society and the Christian Medical and Dental Society, expanding and participating in their outreach programs in developing countries. Now retired, he continues to help those in need as a member of the board of directors of Health Partners International of Canada.