One of the most important things we can do is pass the torch—to show people that if we did it, they can do it—and to find those people who are driven as we are to make a contribution.
University Cup winner's heart in the right place
Esteemed cardiology researcher and former chair of medicine wins UAlberta’s highest academic prize.
By ROSS NEITZ
(Edmonton) In more than 35 years of teaching and practising medicine, Paul Armstrong never doubted his calling to serve others. But in his early years as a student in northern Ontario, the University of Alberta professor says how he would best accomplish it was an open question.
“At that time I had the notion that I was going to win the battle for the mind and thought I’d be a psychologist.”
Armstrong was eventually convinced by a guidance counsellor to become a psychiatrist instead, allowing him to go to medical school and setting him on the path to his life’s work. But while his desire to heal never swayed, his focus did.
“The last two years of medical school I lived in a psychiatric hospital to work my room and board off. At the end of that time I was convinced I could not win the battle of the mind, and that psychiatry was not for me.”
Instead, through a mentor, Armstrong developed an interest in cardiology. That initial spark of interest, decades ago, has since seen him earn global recognition and accolades for his work in the field, including Armstrong’s latest achievement—being named this year’s recipient of the 2014 University Cup, the U of A’s highest academic honour.
The University Cup is awarded to a faculty member who has achieved outstanding distinction in scholarly research, teaching and service to the U of A and to the greater community. Armstrong is among top faculty, staff and students being recognized at the university’s annual Celebrate! Teaching. Learning. Research. event Sept. 25. All are welcome to attend the event.
“It’s very special,” says Armstrong. “The University of Alberta has been a great home for me and continues to be a great home for me.”
Though Armstrong’s early career was spent at Queen’s University and the University of Toronto, for the past 21 years he has served in several leadership capacities in the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. He has served as chair of the Department of Medicine, director of the Heart Function Clinic at the University Hospital, and director of the Canadian VIGOUR Centre at the U of A, a position he continues to hold today. Outside of his duties at the university, Armstrong has also held positions as director of the CIHR Research Training Program and as founding president of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.
Over his long academic career, Armstrong has published more than 650 papers examining heart attacks and heart failure, and won 18 major awards and distinctions for his research. And although his academic contributions to the field of cardiology have been tremendous, Armstrong says his passion to advance research has been driven by his dissatisfaction with the status quo in health care, a curiosity about why things happen to the heart the way they do and a desire to help patients.
“I’ve probably failed more than most people you’ve ever met. What keeps you going over the failures is the people you care for, and their needs, and the satisfaction you get from helping them.”
In that, his career has been remarkably successful. Over his 35-plus years in medicine, Armstrong’s work has helped lessen heart attack mortality rates from 30 per cent to just five per cent. Part of that success stems from his leadership role with the Canadian VIGOUR Centre, where he helped shape and co-ordinate international clinical trials. That work has given new understanding to the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease.
While Armstrong’s efforts have had a direct impact on countless patients, he has also had a lasting influence on colleagues and students. Throughout his academic career, Armstrong has focused on guiding and inspiring young researchers. He has supervised more than 50 trainees in research, several of whom now lead academic cardiology divisions or departments in Canada and around the world. Looking back, Armstrong says his time with them has been one of the most satisfying aspects of his career.
“I well remember a young man who walked into my office when I was about seven or eight years into practice, whom I hadn’t seen for a year. And he said, ‘I just came back to thank you.’ I think at that point I realized that 99.9 per cent of us aren’t going to win Nobel Prizes, but one of the most important things we can do is pass the torch—to show people that if we did it, they can do it—and to find those people who are driven as we are to make a contribution.”
While his own contributions to cardiology continue, Armstrong says he is beginning the transition to a slower lifestyle. Although he continues to teach and guide research, he now has a desire to spend more time reflecting and writing on “matters of a philosophical nature.”
And though Armstrong’s contributions to cardiology have been valuable, he knows his career would not have been as rich an experience without the support of others.
“The successes I’ve had have been because of a collaborative spirit and a generosity that I hope I’ve shown, and my colleagues have shown. If we work together, we’re clearly much better than the sum of our parts.”