Reflecting on a Lifetime of Humanitarian Work

Dr. Steve Beerman, a Nanaimo family physician who retired last March from Anchor Family Medicine after 34 years of family practice, reflects on his career, the volunteer work he is still passionate about, and the joy that has come from 40 years of volunteering.

When Steve Beerman was 12 and living in Powell River, a young woman visiting the area dove into the ocean on a warm summer day. She thought the water she was diving into was deeper than it was and the dive resulted in a neck fracture and life-long paralysis. This tragic outcome became a very high-profile legal case and contributed to Beerman’s sense of inquiry into water-related injury and drowning. 

Beerman enrolled in a life saving course and his instructor encouraged him to take additional training. Within a few years he was lifeguarding part time and competing in lifesaving sport, where he was provided the opportunity to test his lifesaving skills in a challenging, competitive environment. Working as a lifeguard, Beerman prevented drownings and saved distressed swimmers, which also had a huge impact on him. After graduating from high school, he pursued a Bachelor of Science and went on to complete a Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation. 

“I was attracted to the medical sciences as I wanted to help people recover from their serious injuries and return to health and happiness,” said Beerman.

While attending university and after graduating as a physiotherapist and occupational therapist, Beerman worked with spinal cord injury patients and learned that too many spinal cord injuries occur when people break their necks diving into shallow water, and as a water rescue advocate, he wanted to learn more about prevention options. This led him to volunteer with the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS), a non-profit organization committed to the prevention of drowning and aquatic-related injury through water safety education. This was the beginning of what would become four decades of volunteer service aiming to make Canadians ‘Water Smart’, to exercise safe and responsible behaviour in and around water to prevent water-related injuries. 

Beerman became good friends with his fellow Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) volunteers, some of whom are still involved with the RLSS after 40 years. His volunteer colleagues encouraged Beerman to become a member of the RLSS Medical Advisory Committee. Beerman was in his mid-twenties and a medical student, and this presented him with some valuable early career leadership opportunities. 

“I discovered that attending meetings was a great opportunity to learn from other influential, effective leaders,” said Beerman. “I began to understand the importance of strategic planning and that the most important things you will learn and do are things you’re not getting paid for. “

Within a few months of graduating from medical school Beerman became the Chair of the Royal Life Saving Society Medical Advisory Committee, and as the organization grew, he grew with it. He became the Vice President and then the President of the RLSS National body, and after that learning and service, he was invited to the International Life Saving Federation Medical Commission, as well as other international senior leadership roles.  

“I have traveled to more than 70 countries, I have met with The Queen on multiple occasions, and I have been able to learn from very skilled and accomplished leaders, primarily because I became a skilled volunteer.” 

The leadership skills he developed while working as a volunteer benefitted him in his role as a family physician. In 2007 Beerman helped to establish the University of British Columbia (UBC) family practice residency program in Nanaimo, which was one of 20 sites across the province where UBC medical student graduates spend two years of residency training to become family physicians. 

“Like many communities at that time, Nanaimo was having difficulties attracting family physicians,” said Beerman. “This program places 16 resident doctors in Nanaimo for two years, with eight graduating each year. The students spend time at 8 teaching clinics in Nanaimo, and also work in other related disciplines, such as pediatrics, palliative care and mental health.” 

Approximately 50 per cent of these full-spectrum, community-based physicians who are completing their residency training stay in Nanaimo to practice family medicine. Beerman remained the UBC Postgraduate Family Medicine Residency Program Nanaimo Site Director for 12 years. He continues to support residents with their scholarship requirements. 

In his role as President of the International Lifesaving Federation, Beerman explored and facilitated the engagement of the World Health Organization (WHO) in the drowning prevention effort. In 2010 the International Lifesaving Federation achieved ‘official relations’ with the WHO. In 2014 the first WHO Global Report on Drowning declared drowning a major public health issue. 

“World-wide there are 235,600 deaths per year due to drowning, and it’s the leading cause of child mortality in low and middle-income countries, where 90 percent of the global drowning mortalities occur,” said Beerman. “In Canada, a typical drowning event might involve an adolescent male who suffers a mishap while swimming or boating, often involving alcohol. In low and middle income countries drowning is associated with activities of daily living and the leading cause of death, killing many children every day. This is not only a tragedy, it’s a public health crisis.”

In most cases of drowning, children are not playing, but simply fall into one of the many bodies of water within 20 metres of their homes - some stagnant, others flowing - that cover much of the rural landscape. With an $112,000 grant from Grand Challenges Canada, and matching funds from UBC, Lifesaving Society Ontario, and the Royal Life Saving Society Australia, Beerman and a multi-national research team embarked on a study to reduce the rate of drowning in children in Bangladesh. This resulted in creating backyard daycare centres for young children and enclosed pond pools made of bamboo where children were taught swimming and basic survival skills. These interventions have strong evidence for prevention and are now being scaled up in Bangladesh and other nations.

“Drowning can be prevented by implementing interventions and strategies to control access to water, teaching basic swim, water safety skills and CPR skills” said Beerman. “Having the World Health Organization recommend interventions and promote drowning prevention public awareness is helping to save lives.”

The collective efforts of many, including Beerman, has resulted in the identification of low-cost effective drowning prevention strategies for low and high income countries and communities. The global burden of drowning is reducing, in part due to the implementation and scaling up of drowning prevention interventions. 

On April 28, 2021 the United Nations General Assembly passed the first U.N. Resolution on Drowning Prevention and has proclaimed July 25 as World Drowning Prevention Day. The resolution, adopted by consensus by the 193-member world body, calls on countries to observe the day annually through education, knowledge sharing and other activities, in order to raise awareness about the importance of an urgent, coordinated approach to improving water safety, with the aim of reducing preventable deaths.

“This is one of the sentinel events that a global effort of researchers, practitioners and the injury prevention community has been working towards for a long time,” said Beerman, “but there is still much work to do.”

Recently recognized by Queen Elizabeth II for his dedication to the Royal Life Saving Society and his outstanding national and international leadership in the drowning prevention field for more than four decades, Dr. Beerman humbly thanked The Queen but was quick to acknowledge the organizations and people who have made his work so rewarding.

“It has been a pleasure and a wonderful journey Your Majesty,” said Beerman. “It is thanks to my family and the organizations I’ve worked closely with – the Royal Life Saving Society, my project teams, my colleagues at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and the University of British Columbia, and my fellow lifesaving volunteers. They have each been instrumental to the advancements we have made to this worthy endeavor.”