Humans of Mac Med– Simon Farquharson

By: Kay Wu (c2022)

Q: Who are you?


I consider myself a citizen of the world. I don’t really consider myself Canadian, or Brazilian even though I was born in Brazil, or Peruvian even though I’m half Peruvian, or Scottish though my last name is Scottish. It’s weird—in Canada, people think I’m Brazilian; in Brazil, people think I’m Canadian. Everywhere else, people don’t know. I consider myself just a random person in the world.

My internationality is a core part of my identity. I don’t like the concept of blind loyalty or patriotism. I don’t understand why someone would support a country just because it’s their country. I feel like you should support a country for what it does, or go against it for what it does or what it doesn’t do.

Q: What’s one experience you’ve had that you feel others could learn from?


I did a medical anthropology elective where I had to write a big paper. I chose to write it on the interface between Western biomedicine and traditional Andean medical practices. I am Andean myself, by heritage, so I wanted to learn about what it looked like for them and how the introduction of Western biomedicine affected them.

Afterwards, I went to Peru, and decided to go to the mountains and meet some of these curanderos, who are the traditional ethnic healers in the Andes. I learned a lot about the curanderos, and about the value that they have to the local people, and why they like going to the ethnic healers. Even today, many locals still often go to curanderos as well as the modern doctors—the curanderos are somehow fulfilling one of their needs for health. I found that the role of a curandero was sometimes more like that of a social worker, counsellor, and even a decider of group norms and soft enforcer of societal practices. I found there was a value overlooked because we think primarily about the lack of scientific basis to these practices.

I feel like it would be beneficial if people were more open to thinking about how traditional healthcare is helping a person. Either it will help you to appreciate and work alongside alternative healers, or if you can change your own practice, maybe people who don’t go to the traditional healers will have a better experience with you because you’ll incorporate the ideas about culturally integrated practice. Basically, I think that anthropology should be a course that is taught in medicine, and I wish it was.

Q: Do you have a favourite song?


For several years, it’s been the same one. It is a song by The Beatles called “Octopus’s Garden”. Most people have never heard of it. I don’t like it particularly because the music is great, or the lyrics are cool, or because it’s musically complex, or because it sounds really good. I like it because it has this Zen vibe. Its atmosphere is sort of like a meditation. It was written and sung by Ringo Starr, and he had this sort of fundamental understanding of the world which I’m not sure if even he fully appreciated.

It’s a surreal, relaxing, kind of crazy, and imaginative song about what he would like the world to be like. And if you don’t know it, some of the main lines are:

“I’d like to be under the sea

in an octopus’s garden in the shade

We would be warm below the storm

In our little hideaway beneath the waves.

Resting our heads on the seabed

In our octopus’s garden near a cave…

We would be so happy you and me

No one there to tell us what to do

I’d like to be under the sea

In an octopus’s garden with you.”

It’s super strange and childish, and sort of deep and meaningful in terms of just wanting a nice place where you don’t have to worry about things, and you just play around and have fun and enjoy a childish life. It’s the epitome of the whole problem that so many people have, where they don’t want to be an adult and they want to be kids forever. This song captures this feeling and this longing for a place where you don’t have to worry about anything and everything is cool and just Zen.

Q: What’s your favourite childhood memory?


I lived in one house in Brazil that was surrounded by jungle. We couldn’t see any other civilization from our house, just trees. We would go exploring the jungle as kids. I was the youngest brother, so I would go with my older brothers. And we would sometimes spend the whole day exploring jungle with machetes and climbing trees and catching snakes if we could, or running away from them if we couldn’t, finding random new fruits, building tree houses and jungle forts, and following birds and monkeys. It was just a wonderful, open, limitless world of discovery and adventure. It was super fun.

Q: If you were stuck on an island, what three things would you want to have with you?


I’ve thought about this a lot. I’d want a knife, a water bottle, and flint. I know that’s not a regular answer—most people would be like, “Oh I want my cell phone so I can call for help.” The reason I’m saying those three things is one of my childhood heroes was Bear Grylls, the guy who did a bunch of survival shows, and those are the three things he said he’d always bring at the beginning of one of his adventures. And that was the only show I’d ever watched as a teen; I loved that show. So I got my own knife, water bottle, and flint so I could have them if I ever got lost.

Q: What is the most memorable thing that’s ever happened to you?


I was saved from drowning when I was 17. It was in Brazil, on a beach. There was a riptide. I was swimming with four of my friends. I was a good swimmer and I was the one who noticed we were being drawn to the riptide. So I told them all that we should get out, and I was ahead of them. A very large wave crashed on top of me that didn’t crash on them. It tumbled me underwater, and when I finally came up, I was behind them all. And then I could never get back fully to where they were, and they didn’t even notice I disappeared for a while. Finally, one of them noticed because I was screaming while I was trying to swim back.

It took probably 20 minutes for anyone to get to me, and by that time I was about a kilometer out to sea—I was beyond where any of the waves crashed, and I was totally exhausted. I have a general idea of what you’re supposed to do to fight or dodge waves, but I couldn’t do any of it, because all I could think about was trying to breathe.

Finally, someone got to me but the waves were too strong for us to come straight back to shore, and so they put me on a surfboard and they swam, towing me along on the surfboard because I was dead tired, the entire way across the beach and finally to where there was no riptide. Took them an hour and a half or more to do that.

When I came back, I was so dead and exhausted and kind of happy because I survived. I had long hair, like a meter long. It had really hindered my swimming, because every time I came up, the hair was all in my face, and I couldn’t breathe, and I would try to pull it out, and then a wave would hit me again. It was so terrible. Plus, there was a ton of seaweed tangled in my hair that made it hard. But the good part is that after that, when I finally washed out the seaweed and everything, my hair was so soft and smooth and wonderful because seaweed is so good for your hair. It was amazing. So that’s the good side.

Q: Did that experience change your perception of life?


Yeah, a little bit. It’s a strange thing, but I do remember being underwater at one point with barely any energy to swim anymore and looking up, I saw that the surface was like 3 meters away from me. And that’s a long way when you barely have breath and you’re dead tired. I looked up, and at one point, I didn’t even feel like swimming anymore, because it was just so far and I knew that when I got there, I’d be hit down and I’d have to swim up again. So it’s a strange idea of wanting to swim but not feeling like it’s worth the effort. And I did keep swimming, and I do remember thinking, “Oh, this is the point in time when people are supposed to make deals with deities.” I remember thinking that, and I totally understand why people do that because it’s an entirely helpless feeling. The ocean is just so crazy powerful.

Q: Are you religious?


Yes. Actually, I was raised in a religiously-based volunteer organization, so I was brought up in it. And I still think I am, but the problem is that the connotation with the word “religion” isn’t always great. I think that there are a lot of terms that have been prescribed as being part of religion that I don’t agree with. So one way people describe it nowadays is using the word “spiritual”. I think that’s probably better in terms of modern lingo, because I don’t believe in dogma and I don’t really like even religious buildings—they have some purpose in terms of social centers but a lot of it is a waste of money and a lot of the religions’ practices are totally against their proposed ideals. I do think that spirituality, regardless of whether it’s true or not, is a healthy part of my psyche. The incorporation of spirituality into my moral ideal system is something that’s good for me.

Q: How do you incorporate spirituality into your life?


I think it comes down to having a purpose in doing what you think is right. Some people do it because they have an ingrained idea that humans are their allies and they should help them, and I think that’s true and I like that. But I also think that without the idea of spirituality, there is a bit of a loss in terms of the difficult-to-understand complexity of human nature and human interaction, of wanting to have a higher calling and power that’s above them and that’s more important than them that they can be a part of.

I know that some people say it’s a fabrication by humans. I don’t care if it is, I care if it affects me well. If it’s a fabrication that’s fine, as long as what it does in me is help me to be a better, more morally-guided ethical human. It’s the outcome that matters. There are people with no spirituality, no religiosity that have perfectly great lives—they found some other way of incorporating morality into their life and I’m perfectly cool with that.

Q: Who is a hero of yours?


Paul Farmer. He’s a doctor and anthropologist. He’s made a lot of progress in the public health and medical anthropology and its integration with healthcare. He did a lot of stuff in Peru, Haiti, and Africa, and tackled several endemic conditions that they had. He founded an organization called Partners In Health and they’ve done some amazing stuff—he’s fought TB for a long time. He gives me so much inspiration of having such amazingly broad horizons of what can actually be done. Together with the people that are in his life, he realized you can aim to do amazingly huge tasks and you can sometimes succeed. And it makes you feel like, you know, all of the problems with the world we see can be changed. Maybe not right away and not by just me, but they can be changed. He’s tackled some crazy amazing problems. He hasn’t fixed them completely, but he’s made a difference.

Q: Do you have any big goals for your life or things on your bucket list?


I’ve had many. I’ve given up on most of them, just because I have started to come to terms with my own strengths and some of these lofty goals were things I wanted to see happen, but I decided I’m probably not the best person to make it happen. I don’t know, that kind of goes against what I said earlier.

The other thing is, I’ve had so many lofty goals and so many ideals—so many crazy impossible ideas— of what I wanted to do in the environment and in the government and in literature and what I wanted to do in every interest I’ve ever had. And I’ve had to give most of them up, mainly because I realized I couldn’t achieve all of them. It was a terrible moment in my life, when I realized I couldn’t do all of the wonderful things I wanted to do. Because you can’t be an environmental scientist and a doctor and a researcher and an author and a photographer, and all of the cool things at the same time.

I remember at one point, I made myself choose what kind of art I wanted to pursue because I was interested in way too many kinds of art. I was interested in all kinds of music, and visual art, and 3-dimensional art, and literary art. I decided I was going to choose because there was too many to become good at them all, and I made my choice based on which one I thought I could express myself best with. Writing was where I felt I could express myself best, so I decided to focus on that, specifically poetry. So then I dropped all the other ones, including my childhood aspiration to write my own symphony.

Q: If you lived in another era, what profession would you want?


I like having a super broad knowledge base—as wide as possible. That’s one of the things I’ve strived for and prided myself in. It’s mainly because I have very broad interests and I’m constantly looking up things I’m thinking about. When I was a young teen, I didn’t have Internet.  We had Encyclopedia Britannica in all of its 32 volumes, and I loved those books. Every time I wanted to know something, I would open up Encyclopedia Britannica and read about it. I learned about diesel engines, and I learnt about grafting branches of trees, and I learnt about World War planes. I learned all kind of random crazy things because I liked that.

I remember, when I was deciding what to study, literally searching to see if the career called a naturalist still existed as it did historically. They don’t exist anymore, not in the way they used to exist. Naturalists were the most wonderfully broad scientists in the world. Charles Darwin was a naturalist. A lot of founding scientists were naturalists. And a lot of them were doctors or dentists and would also go on trips to Australia and Africa and document new species or geological digs, and they would also have labs and make drugs. They would do all of these things together—they had a huge broad scope of research and of practice, and I loved that. I wanted to incorporate exploring with finding species and anthropology and documenting people that hadn’t been studied and practicing medicine. It would be so cool if it existed, but it doesn’t. It’s too broad. We’ve become a world of specialists.

Q: What’s something you want to do more of?


I want to travel more. I’ve travelled more than probably almost everyone else here, but I want to travel even more. I like travelling. I want to go to eastern Europe. I want to take the Trans-Siberian train across to northeastern Asia. I want to see little places.

Some of it is just fulfilling a personal curiosity of the world, and some of it is also continuing my established connection of what it means to be human in different parts of the world, and using that to guide my own perspective of what I am as a human.

I know sometimes it’s not their fault and I’m being too harsh, but for people who have been in the same neighbourhood their entire lives, I don’t really think it makes a well-rounded person. I don’t think it makes a person who is able to understand other people really well. They’ve only seen the same things their entire lives, and the world could just be their city for all they care about. I don’t think it helps them understand humanity and issues with people that aren’t just like you. Even if you’ve travelled all over southern Asia, you won’t know anything about Indigenous South America, but your perspective will be more open and more understanding that there are many different ways of seeing the world. So then if you met an Indigenous South American, you’d probably have a better interaction with them because you’re more culturally aware of the world.

When I travel, I would spend three months in a country or a couple of countries and spend a week in each city getting to know the city a little bit. And usually, by the end of the week, I would know all of the restaurants, the little local places none of the tourists went to. It was great. Because I know I won’t have that many long periods of free time, I’m trying to build my own camper van that I can drive and do short trips around North America with and get to know it, if I were to do 4 day trips. I haven’t explored North America very much—I know South America way better than North America. So I want to get to know North America a bit better.

Q: What are you most afraid of?


There is one thing I’ve seen in a patient of mine that pushed me beyond any other feeling I’ve had when seeing a patient, because I started imagining what if I was in this situation. I’ve seen a lot of crazy terrible situations—people with like end-stage liver disease, for example. It’s a terrible disease—it’s probably the worst way I could think of dying physically. But I still don’t fear it as much as a fear what I’m talking about. And it’s not because it’s terrible and it hurts, it’s because it’s kind of surreal…

I had a patient who was very confused, whose husband had died 5 or 10 years earlier and who was constantly, the entire night shift that I was there, begging and crying for people to people to allow her to go. She kept on telling us, “My husband’s in the hospital, he needs me, he’s sick, you don’t understand, I might not be able to see him again.” She was begging and trying to convince us, “I can pay you if you let me go, I don’t have money but I’ll come back and pay you, just let me get the bus.” And it just, it just was… I don’t know, it’s like the idea of losing your body is bad, but the idea of losing your mind is worse for me. I think I’d rather be quadriplegic than have dementia. It’s not just any dementia; there’s some people that have a great time with their dementia. They don’t remember anything but they’re just happy about it. And then there’s some situations, sometimes when it turns into this, it’s like they are living in the worst time in their life, extended. She might even be remembering the time when her husband was brought into the hospital where he died, and she might even be reliving this feeling of being unable to help her husband and being held back by these people in uniforms from going to the only person she cared about.

And not only did I have a fear of myself forgetting and getting into a state like this, I also had a fear that what if I die, and I have a wife who survives and has dementia? That is a terrible thought. Seeing this was just infuriating, because I couldn’t do anything—I felt helpless, it was gut-wrenching. It was overwhelming for me to even watch. I can’t imagine what it’s like to feel like that. If there’s one thing I’d wish not to happen to me or my loved ones, it would be this.

Q: What advice would you give to a group of young people?


I think there’s two things, and they are kind of the opposite of each other. So the advice would be that there is a balance, and you shouldn’t be too extreme in either end of this balance. And what the balance is is the idea that life is short, and the idea that life is long. I feel like there’s too many people who say that life is short, and you have to do what’s right right away. Because the side effect of that is then people think life is short, I can’t do this because it’s too short or it’s too late or I have to do this right now or I’ll never be able to do it again, or I have to get into university right away because I graduated high school and if I don’t, I’ll be too old.

And that’s not true, I think sometimes you should take time away from forcing yourself towards an endpoint to a more neutral middle ground of just trying to understand the world, to understand yourself, to explore your life, and to explore possibilities, not always focusing on getting where you want to go, and sometimes relaxing, and sometimes waiting, and sometimes taking a year off.

I just think there’s a lot of push, especially in medical students, of wanting to do things as much as possible, as best as possible, as soon as possible, as often as possible, and I don’t think that’s necessarily good.

Of course, there’s also people who think that their life will never end, and time never goes by, and it doesn’t matter, they’ll always leave it for later and they never do it. That’s also bad and I would advise against that. But I’d also advise against perpetuating the notion that life is always running out and you always have to do something that’s important to meet your end goal. I think you should sometimes do useless things.

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