Charlie sitting at his office desk
Over a career of more than 30 years, Dr. Charlie Chan has served in a wide range of hospital leadership roles and developed a reputation as a trusted colleague and "go-to person." (Photo: UHN)

Dr. Charlie Chan is moving on.

But make no mistake, though the affable and energetic respirologist with the larger-than-life persona is leaving UHN, where his leadership roles pre-date the formation of the organization, he is not retiring.

"It's a different chapter but it's not retirement because I would be bored to death," says the man everyone knows as "Charlie." "Two weeks in Maui, no problem. Any more, I start getting cabin fever.

"I'm exploring my options. But the fact it might involve a little heavy lifting won't scare me."

Little wonder. Over a career spanning more than 30 years, including the past 23 at UHN, Charlie has never been one to shy away from work, successfully taking on increasingly larger roles in medical leadership with a potent mix of gusto, acumen and humour.

"Charlie has always got involved, always stepped up," says Dr. John Granton, who met Charlie as a first-year resident at The Wellesley Hospital, eventually following him to Toronto General Hospital (TG) and later succeeding him in the role of Head of the Joint Division of Respirology at UHN and Mt. Sinai Hospital.

"If you just look at the sheer number of leadership roles he's assumed, it's because people value him and he gets things done," Dr. Granton says. "He's a great listener and seems to have an innate ability to cut to the chase extremely well, even when presented with a complex problem.

"He's trusted. You can lean on him and know you're leaning on something that's not going to give way."

Charlie from 1982
Charlie, pictured here in 1982, left Hong Kong at age 16 to come to Canada to go to school. (Photo: Courtesy Charlie Chan)

Charlie has risen through the ranks, including a seven-month stint as Interim President & CEO of UHN until May of this year, without benefit of formal leadership training. The wall full of framed credentials in his office in TG's R. Fraser Elliott Building includes no MBA or other business qualifications – he's forged a path on the job via honesty, listening, consensus building and a willingness to admit mistakes.

"Leadership is not his identity," says Marnie Escaf, Senior Vice President, UHN, and Executive Lead at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, who has worked with Charlie since 1987, starting at The Wellesley.

"He's not someone who feels he's the boss and will tell you how things will be," Marnie says. "People know they can reach out to him with a problem and he'll be highly responsive and help deal with it.

"This is why he is a go-to person."

Marnie says Charlie "makes everybody feel valuable and worthwhile and important," while being so generous, not just with his time in helping to tackle challenges that may arise, but also opening his home to entire departments of staff for holiday parties and other gatherings.

"People really respect him because he values every single person on the team," Marnie says.

Those who know him best say Charlie has also always had his priorities – his wife and their daughter.

"He's always been very dedicated to his family even though he spends a lot of time at the hospital," says Dr. Michael Hutcheon, the former Medical Director of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program at UHN and Charlie's predecessor as Head of Respirology.

Charlie with his coloured hair
Last spring, while serving as Interim President & CEO, Charlie dyed his hair as part of The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation’s Colour Your Hair to Conquer Cancer. (Photo: UHN)

From his earliest days growing up in Hong Kong, where Charlie admits "I had a bit of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), I probably still do," he has been a multi-tasker. Doing the same thing over and over bores him, so he's always had lots going on – clinical practice, research, teaching, leadership.

"Don't focus your career on one thing because things will change," he says. "If you're adaptive and flexible, instead of being stressed out by it, you'll be able to make the most out of every opportunity."

Charlie certainly has. He was Chair of an HIV Task Force and HIV Program Committee at The Wellesley; Head of the Joint Division of Respirology at UHN and Mt. Sinai Hospital; Vice-President of Medical Affairs & Quality and Chief Medical Officer at UHN, and, ultimately, Interim President & CEO.

Those are a few highlights from a lengthy list of hospital administration and leadership appointments.

It's an odd résumé for a guy who insists "my career path never included plans for medical leadership."

But those who've known him over the years say Charlie's successful roles in management are far from surprising. They are simply a byproduct of who he is.

"He's collaborative, easy to work with and more than pulls his weight," says Dr. Hutcheon. "Beyond his leadership, he's quite a remarkable person."

Charlie at 2018 UHN AGM
At the 2018 UHN Annual General Meeting in June, Charlie reflected on the 44 years since he came to Canada from Hong Kong, eventually leading Canada’s largest research hospital. (Photo: UHN)

Dr. Hutcheon was Chief of Respiratory Medicine at The Wellesley when Charlie arrived as a resident 35 years ago. He says everyone saw Charlie in the same way – "a combination of very gregarious, huge amounts of energy, a really pragmatic, get-things-done attitude, and tremendous competence.

"He was good clinically, but he was good in every way," says Dr. Hutcheon, who in addition to being a longtime colleague counts Charlie as a friend.

For Charlie, leadership roles have been more about improving healthcare than advancing his career.

His clinical practice and research at The Wellesley was focused on lung complications in allogenic stem cell transplant recipients before he began working with AIDS patients as the disease ravaged the hospital's community. That led to helping establish and run a 20-bed in-patient unit and out-patient clinic and holding management positions with the HIV/AIDS team before leaving for TG in 1995.

With Princess Margaret Hospital moving to University Ave. from near The Wellesley, Charlie was well positioned to resume his clinical research on patients with lung complications from allogeneic marrow transplant and cancer treatment. But within a couple of years, his expertise expanded to include lung transplant patients and, in 1998, prior to the birth of UHN, he succeeded Dr. Hutcheon as Head of Respirology, holding the post 11 years.

It was a busy time. He also took on leadership of the Thoracic Business Unit, added the Emergency Admit Unit, became Program Medical Director of Advanced Medicine & Surgery Programs, tossed in Medical Director of Endoscopy Services at UHN and served, on a part-time basis, as Interim Head of Respirology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Women's College Hospital for a couple years.

His final decade at UHN has been spent in senior management, including leading the organization.

"If someone needs to step up to do something, I've always been happy to do that," Charlie says. "But I didn't see it as a trade-off, or giving up something in order to take on a leadership role.

"I always saw it as part of the job that needed to be done in order to make things happen."

Charlie wrestling his golden retriever
For a 2016 profile on UHN News, Charlie shared a picture of him wrestling with his beloved golden retriever, Sammi. (Photo: Courtesy Charlie Chan)

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