Dr. E. Anne Fanning, MD’63, FRCPC, closes her eyes and recalls a frail man sitting before her, telling his life’s story.
The man was one of the last patients Dr. Fanning saw before she retired, and he had spent a significant portion of his life dealing with the effects of tuberculosis (TB), a serious infectious disease that primarily affects the lungs. He had acquired the infection as a young child in a residential school.
TB had affected the man’s back bone and he needed to spend an entire decade in a body cast.
“Meeting that patient is one of the strongest memories I have,” Dr. Fanning said. “It was a profound experience for me to realize how rich and wonderful my life had been, and how traumatized his had been, solely because of where he was born and where he grew up.”
Dr. Fanning never planned to focus her career on TB. After graduating from medical school in 1963 and training in internal medicine, she and her husband decided to have a child
When she was ready to return to work six months later, a colleague informed her of a part-time position at the University of Alberta’s Division of Infectious Disease. The job would have her focus on TB.
“I must say, when I heard about the job, all I could think of was how boring it was going to be,” she said with a laugh. “I only took it because of the hours and flexibility—I didn’t know how fascinating it was going to be, or what an impact it would have on my life.”
Dr. Fanning was immediately drawn to TB’s myriad of presentations that are challenging to diagnose, and the strong statement it makes about socioeconomics not just in Canada, but globally as well.
The majority of people affected by TB have lower socioeconomic status, and usually live in small quarters with several people and little airflow. Because of this, they are more likely to be exposed to the one person in the room who has active infectious TB.
While TB is now mainly a disease of the third world, major populations are still affected by it in Canada, including the immigrant and First Nations populations.
“It has been said that Sir William Osler once described tuberculosis as ‘a social disease with a medical aspect.’ I think my passion is related to the fact that this is a disease of no concern to approximately 95 per cent of the population in Canada, and yet a huge burden globally,” she said.
Dr. Fanning was able to make significant changes in the field of TB throughout her career, through her many roles including Director of TB Services for the Province of Alberta and Medical Officer for the World Health Organization’s Global TB Program.
One of Dr. Fanning’s former classmates, Dr. Eric Shepherd, MD’63, FRCPC, explained from the first time he met her in 1959, she has remained a continuous positive influence in many spheres. “My colleague and friend has devoted her energy and expertise unstintingly to confront the challenges of an ancient and resurgent disease that has major prevalence among the most underprivileged,” he said.
Dr. Fanning has been recognized for her achievements and work through multiple prestigious awards, including: the Order of Canada in 2006; the Frederic Newton Gisborne Starr Award by the Canadian Medical Association in 2014; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Region of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.
In addition to gardening, cooking and spending time with her three grandchildren, the 75-year-old continues to do infectious disease grand rounds, gives lectures about TB, and remains a part of several organizations including the Edmonton Lifelong Learners Association.
“I feel like I’m still the same person I was when I first entered medical school, I’m just in a new phase of my life—the phase where you want to stay connected and care passionately about what’s going on, but don’t have an official role,” she said.
Continuing to lecture and give rounds has helped her with this transition, as she still has the opportunity to spend time with the brightest new minds in medicine.
“I know they will be able to make an even greater impact on global health,” she said with a smile.
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