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Dr. Gaetan Tardif has been organizing people since age eight, when his father saw a talent for pulling disparate parts together, and started delegating the task of planning family holidays to his son.
"I would write to the chambers of commerce, collect motel brochures, and compare them with our budget," recalls Dr. Tardif.
"Then I'd lay out all our options, and we'd choose where to go as a family."
It's that same sensibility – of laying the groundwork and letting people arrive at the best decisions on their own – that Dr. Tardif applied to his role of Medical Director of Toronto Rehab. A leadership role he's stepping down from, after 20 years, this month.
Lesson #1: Hire the right leaders, and let them do what they do best
It was 1998 when Dr. Tardif, better known across UHN as Gaetan, was recruited from Ottawa, to become Chief Medical Officer of the newly-formed Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – an amalgamation of hospitals that promised to provide unique, multi-specialty care to patients.
Though the move was a big one – he and his wife both had thriving medical careers and two young children at home – he knew it was right.
"I wanted to do new things, to keep making things better. I wanted to be somewhere where people wanted to continuously improve," Gaetan says.
The job was straightforward – to build, build, build. So, he interpreted it his own way: recruit the right leaders, and let them do what they do best.
"I'm very much in line with (UHN President & CEO) Dr. Kevin Smith's philosophy around team-building," Gaetan explains.
"If you're comfortable enough in your own knowledge – and sometimes lack thereof – you're not afraid to hire people who are smarter than you. Not people you're trying to control, but people who will grow and help you grow as well."
It's also an ethic Gaetan shares with Susan Jewell, Senior Vice President and Executive Lead for Toronto Rehab, who he's been working alongside for eight years. Together, they role-model a supportive, high-performing culture.
"Gaetan doesn't think anything is too big or too small to tackle," says Susan. "He's interested in making sure our staff are engaged, that we identify issues, and build really strong teams."
One of those teams was established in the early days of Toronto Rehab, when Gaetan recruited Dr. Mark Bayley, incoming Physiatrist in Chief & Medical Program Director, and current Medical Director of Toronto Rehab's Brain & Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Program.
In fact, he cites hiring Dr. Bayley as one of the best Christmas presents he's ever received.
"It was in the early days, when Mark came into town over the holidays, to collaborate with another researcher at Toronto Rehab," Gaetan recalls.
"I was aware of his reputation in the neuro rehab field, and interested in establishing a program of our own. As he was leaving, I said, 'If you ever want to work here, you know where to find me.' We arranged for a follow-up meeting immediately."
Since coming onboard in 1999, Dr. Bayley has been instrumental in building an unparalleled brain and spinal cord rehab program that integrates research into day-to-day practice, and offers clinics such as
LIFEspan, which partners with Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, to facilitate the transition of youth with neurological disabilities into the adult system.
"Gaetan has always been supportive of all our initiatives, providing unique input on potential options, as well as potential pitfalls," says Dr. Bayley.
"When I look back on the moments I'm most proud of, it won't be amazing things I did, other than looking at somebody and thinking, 'This person has a lot of talent. I wonder if I can convince them to come work with me,' " Gaetan adds.
Lesson #2: Give them opportunities they won't find anywhere else
Once the right people are on board, Gaetan knows that the secret to making them stay is giving them opportunities they won't be able to find anywhere else.
It was 2008, when Gaetan, along with Dr. John Flannery, Medical Director of Toronto Rehab's Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation and Multi-System Program, sensed that pain was on the brink of becoming a dominant specialty. They also knew that Dr. Andrea Furlan, a physiatrist and scientist, was emerging as a leader in the field.
"We basically said to her, 'Come be our expert, and tell us what to do.' Then we gave her a platform to do it,'" Dr. Tardif recalls.
Today, Toronto Rehab's pain program is internationally recognized for its leadership in the area of opioid management, and the development of innovative models of care that help healthcare providers deal with unresolved pain, and the use and misuse of heavy narcotics.
"There are so many examples of how Gaetan paved the way for me to grow as a pain specialist in Canada," says Dr. Furlan.
"When I first learned about Project ECHO (a practice model that links expert, inter-professional teams at an academic hub, with primary care providers in local communities), there was nobody in Canada doing it."
Seeing it as a solution to the pain crisis in Canada, Dr. Furlan knocked on many doors, in an effort to find a home for it.
"Gaetan heard my story, and my desire to bring ECHO to Canada," she says. "He was supportive in every possible way, finding me people and space to help make my dream come true."
Toronto Rehab launched Canada's first ECHO in 2014. Today, it has expanded to cover more than 15 topics, and serves communities in Ontario and beyond.
"If I have somebody who really knows what they're doing, I'm going to coach, I'm going to mentor, and I'm going to sponsor," Gaetan says.
"I'm also going to take some barriers down, so they won't take flack along the way."
But Gaetan doesn't just gain satisfaction from role-modeling strong leadership – he's also interested in nurturing it in others.
As past president of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders (CSPL), he was instrumental in creating and launching the Canadian Certified Physician Executive (CCPE) credential – the first Canadian certification program to recognize physicians for their exemplary leadership performance.
In 2016, Gaetan was awarded with the CSPL's highest honour: The Excellence in Medical Leadership (Chris Carruthers) Award. It's presented to a Canadian physician leader who has done outstanding work in the field of leadership.
"I was truly delighted to work for him during his presidency," says Carol Rochefort, executive director of the CSPL.
"He is a confident, kind, and most importantly, an extremely reliable person. These are the best traits for a president of a nonprofit organization…. I still reach out to him from time to time, for his help or advice on certain issues…and as always, he promptly replies."
Lesson #3: Be fair
Whenever Gaetan works with groups of medical trainees, he asks them to create a word cloud of their personal values. For him, "fairness" has always been front and centre.
Case in point: Outside of his role within Toronto Rehab, Gaetan has been instrumental in building the Paralympic movement in Canada.
It took flight in 2002, when, as Chief Medical Officer, he organized medical services in Salt Lake City, to mirror the medical services in place for the Olympics.
"I didn't know any better – it just seemed like the fair way to do it," he recalls.
"Afterward, I recall (3-time Paralympian and gold-medalist) Paul Rosen commenting, 'Nobody's ever treated us this well before.'
"That got me hooked. I wanted to take that same sense of fairness I brought to the medical front, and spread it to the entire organization."
Gaetan went on to serve a number of roles, including President of the Paralympic Committee, and attended a total of 10 Games, including Athens, Torino, Beijing, Vancouver, London, Toronto, and Rio.
When asked about the impact of his involvement in the games, on his role at Toronto Rehab, Gaetan is clear.
"It's not until you work and travel with athletes, that you realize how big a role a place like Toronto Rehab has in promoting accessibility and universal design," he says.
"Experiencing that has made me a better system advocate for people with disabilities. I love bringing people together and organizing them – but I'm a social activist."
Words of wisdom
As Gaetan reflects on his 20-year journey at Toronto Rehab, he can't help but leave his colleagues with some final thoughts.
"Will Rogers once said, 'Even if you are on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.'
"We've grown so much as a hospital, and doing so many exciting things, that we're among the top in the country, and in some areas, the world.
"But there's a lot of neat stuff happening elsewhere, too. So, don't get comfortable – keeping looking for ways to do better."