On the pandemic front

Leadership skills help in the battle against COVID-19

As a military doctor, Colonel Jim Kile was no stranger to challenging situations.Jim Kile.

He was a commanding officer of a field hospital in Afghanistan. He was part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in former Yugoslavia. He was part of a humanitarian mission in Africa. He even once did a stint aboard the USS Enterprise – the aircraft carrier, not the starship.

Through it all, Kile (BSc ’85, MSc ’87, Kinesiology) learned about the critical importance of leaders fostering trust in order to keep troops and communities safe. Today, the recipient of the Faculty’s 2004 Alumni Achievement Award and the Order of Military Merit has a new challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kile retired in 2019 with the rank of colonel but still has a role as an operational medicine advisor in the Department of National Defense. He has spent the past year providing the Surgeon General with information reports on the pandemic.

Canada’s Surgeon General is the professional head of the Canadian military health jurisdiction and the advisor to the Minister of National Defence and the Chief of Defence Staff on all matters related to the military's health.

All things COVID

Initially, Kile’s job was to provide reports to the Director of Operational Medicine on chemical, biological and radiological medical countermeasures. But three months after taking the role, COVID-19 hit. “I was repurposed for all things COVID,” Kile says.

The job has involved collecting information from the medical and science literature and from news sources, as well as social media, to keep the Surgeon General up to date on the latest tests, drugs, vaccines, treatments and best practices to help protect the troops in the COVID-19 pandemic.

For leaders in this crisis, Kile says it is essential to communicate honestly about what you don’t know as well as what you do know. “You have to have moral fibre, a moral quality about you, for people to be willing to trust you,” he says.

Jim Kile and Howard Green.It was a fortuitous accident that led him into medicine. He had initially planned to attend Royal Military College, but a football knee injury sidelined him for basic training, so he went to Waterloo instead. His mentor, Professor Howard Green at Waterloo, encouraged him to do his master’s in Kinesiology, which led to medical school. “His confidence in me became my confidence in me,” Kile says. Had it not been for that, “I may never have gotten into medicine.”

Pace yourself

During his military career, Kile held a diversity of positions, ranging from instructing, recruitment, policy and managing careers of medical officers in the Canadian Forces, to being Command Surgeon for the Army. One of his most interesting assignments was as a commanding officer in a Canadian field hospital in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan was a totally different world from anything here in Canada, but I felt it to be my most rewarding role in the sense we could help the local Afghans in terms of medicine and help our staff excel in tough times,” he says. “I was outside the wire a lot, which means that you travel in convoys outside the base.”

There were some serious disease challenges, including a cholera outbreak and a rotavirus infection affecting soldiers from several countries, including Canada. “With the cholera outbreak, I learned from the Afghan people, who deal with this every year,” he says. “With the viral outbreak among us and our allies, I saw how an outbreak could rapidly diminish the mission’s capability – and I got to see first-hand that quarantines, handwashing, social distancing and wearing masks do work. That saved our camp.”

Jim Kile.Kile initially served in the Royal Canadian Air Force because his father had been in the air force, and he grew up on airbases. But eventually, he switched from the air force to the army (much to his dad’s chagrin), where he saw new and exciting opportunities.

In the mid-1990s, Kile served as a battalion medical officer with United Nations Peacekeeping Force in the former Yugoslavia as part of Operation MANDARIN. “My role was to medically support our troops, but we ended up doing a lot of humanitarian work,” says Kile, whose small medical unit worked with war refugees in a displaced persons camp, treated locals and took care of kids at a nearby orphanage.

“There were rewarding parts, some very sad parts and everything in the middle. One of the things I learned is that you have to pace yourself,” Kile says of that experience. “You can’t look after others if you don’t look after yourself.”