How rugby prepared Dr. Strang for Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 pandemic

Robert Strang spent much of 2020 facing the media scrum in Nova Scotia as the province’s top COVID-19 doctor, but his spirit was forged in a different scrum: a rugby one. 

Born in Zimbabwe in 1960, he moved to Canada with his family at a young age. He played high school basketball, but his Scottish father convinced him to give rugby a try. Strang went on to play for the University of British Columbia and then in New Zealand.

In the early 1980s, he came home to Canada to play for the national rugby team. In 1983, Strang represented Canada against England at London’s Twickenham Stadium, one of the sport’s most recognizable venues.

After retiring as a player in 1991, he returned to the national side as team doctor in 1994.

Strang also stayed involved as a referee for a decade. When he moved to Nova Scotia in 1999, he continued referreeing rugby and says the sport remains close to his heart.

“There’s something about the sport of rugby that just draws you in. You’re brothers or sisters in arms on the field, and when you’re done everybody’s equal. You socialise together, there’s no animosity.”

Strang draws inspiration from the rugby pitch to his day-to-day work as Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer.

Rubgy Nova Scotia shared these old photos of Dr. Robert Strang’s rugby days while saluting his hard work during the pandemic. Strang is in the top row, fourth from the right. (Rugby NS/Twitter)

“One person scores the try, but the whole team is reflected in that. It’s not about individual accomplishments, it’s always a team score. All 15 people on the field contribute equally,” he says.

“It’s an important life lesson. Whatever we’re working on, everybody has to contribute as a team. Everybody brings their own unique skills. It’s the meshing of all those individual efforts that creates the outcome for everybody.”

A hard year for Nova Scotia

It’s been a long year for Nova Scotians. In the face of tragedy and the overwhelming spectre of the pandemic, inspiration has been hard to come by.

Over the past several months, Strang’s broad shoulders have become a source of strength for many, not least the premier. Strang has been an indispensable right-hand-man for Stephen McNeil at their countless media briefings this year.

The 60-year-old physician seems to take the responsibility in his stride.

“I’m at this seven days a week,” he said during an end-of-year interview with CBC News. “If I’m not acting on it, I’m still thinking about it. I’m not complaining. This is my job. I need to step up to the plate and do my job through a pandemic. There’s so many other people doing that as well.”

Dr. Robert Strang says this year has been like running on a treadmill. He’s been working seven days a week since March. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Criticism is never far from public administration. While resolute in his disposition, Strang admits that even he is not immune to the pressures that come with the job.

“The thing that weighs on me the most is that all these decisions that I either make or recommend to the premier have big implications about people’s jobs, about schooling. It’s not easy to make those decisions.”

Strang refers to his own support network, a collective of relationships built across 30 years in a medical career that has brought him from coast to coast.

“I know that I’m not making those decisions alone, I have lots of good people behind me. My [deputy] medical officer of health [Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed] and other public health colleagues talk a lot. I talk to colleagues across the country. I’m getting really good advice that I lean on.”

Reaching out

There have been moments of joy along the way.

In November, he met with Hughie Dauphinee. The seven–year–old was born with a cleft lip and palate, a condition that Strang himself was born with, and the boy regarded the doctor as a hero for keeping people safe during the pandemic.

“I found that really refreshing for me. It had been a very stressful week and just connecting with Hughie kind of lightened me. It was really fun.”

Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health popped by to visit seven-year-old Hughie Dauphinee at his Halifax home. (Dawn Dauphinee)

Earlier in the year, Strang became pen pals with Sawyer Burke, an 11–year–old who became an unlikely advocate for the QEII Foundation’s COVID–19 fund.

“When people reach out, I’m in a position where perhaps I can be a little bit of a positive role model. If that happens to me then I feel I have an obligation to respond to that in the appropriate way.”

Famous tie collection

Burke presented his new friend with a gift: a new tie that would soon join 21 others on a Christmas tree that would fetch $8,250 at an auction in support of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia.

Strang’s tie collection has become nearly as renowned as the man himself, as he sports a different tie at every briefing.

Other Nova Scotians have since followed Burke’s lead with gifts of silk for their favourite health administrator.

Dr. Robert Strang has held dozens of briefings with Premier Stephen McNeil, announcing tough decisions that have weighed on Nova Scotia’s top doctor. (Communications Nova Scotia)

“I’ve had so many reach-outs from Nova Scotians, whether it’s sending me cards, gifts, emails, whatever, thanking me. That’s hugely strengthening to know that the little bit that I’m able to do to help people get through this and then having them express their thanks,” he says. “It helps lift that burden a lot.”

Honoured for his work

In December, Strang received a different kind of thanks: the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration.

It’s given annually to a public administrator who best exhibits “excellence, dedication, and accomplishment.”

Lt.-Gov. Arthur LeBlanc said that the recognition was well earned.

“Throughout his career, Dr. Strang has placed the health of Nova Scotians at the forefront of his work, developing and implementing policies with our well-being in mind. His commitment to the health of all Nova Scotians has never been more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Hard work continues

With the roll-out of vaccines now underway there is optimism that an end to the pandemic is finally on the horizon.

Months from now the spotlight may finally turn away from Strang, but his provincial celebrity status is unlikely to fade.

Strang says that, just like on the rugby pitch, he is merely one person on a dedicated team.

“I don’t think of myself as famous. In some ways, it’s kind of embarrassing. I just happen to be because of my job,” he says. 

“I’ve been lucky to be in this position at this time. I’ve been given certain opportunities and gifts, if you will, but I’m only here because of the work of lots of other people. When I go home I’m just a dad and a husband, no different than anybody else around in the community.”

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