Nova Scotia

Sydney doctor and former refugee hanging up his stethoscope at age 84

Dr. Navin Patel will retire on June 30 after a career in medicine spanning 57 years.

'I don't know anything else but to work,' says Dr. Navin Patel

Dr. Navin Patel is shown in his office at the Sydney HealthPark. Originally from Uganda, Patel and his family came to Canada in 1972 as refugees. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

A family doctor and former refugee in Sydney, N.S., is set to retire later this month, just days shy of his 85th birthday.

Dr. Navin Patel credits good health for keeping him working 20 years past the typical retirement age. He said he was driven to continue practising by a dedication to his patients and profession. 

"I don't know anything else but to work," he said.

Patel's medical career began 57 years ago in his home country of Uganda in Eastern Africa. Although he initially wanted to become a surgeon, he said family commitments got in the way of his goal. 

"I was the eldest son of five boys.... My father was a middle class man, so I started practising and put my brothers through medical and engineering college," he said.

His early days working as a family doctor in Uganda saw him delivering babies and pulling teeth on the side of the road. Many patients did not have money for services. Patel didn't ask them to pay. 

'We came here with no penny in the pocket'

But it was a military coup by the murderous dictator Idi Amin that led Patel to flee to his country in 1972 with his wife and young sons. 

At age 36, he arrived in Montreal with a medical licence that was not fully accepted by Canadian standards. 

"We came here with no penny in the pocket," he said. "We were not allowed to take any money from Uganda, so I started with God's blessing and good-hearted Canadians and stood up again on my feet."

After a chance meeting with an associate dean of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Patel said he was able to retrain by working at a Saint John, N.B., hospital. He later heard about a clinic in Sydney, N.S., that was hiring.

"I decided to come here for one year, but I like it, so I'm here 46 years now," said Patel of his time in Cape Breton. 

"People are very friendly, and [there are] hospital privileges, which you don't get in a big city. I wanted to become a surgeon, so I assisted all different surgeons in the Sydney City Hospital and I learned a lot."

Bittersweet goodbye

His duties working in rural Cape Breton included delivering babies and making house calls to small fishing villages, such as Baleine and Main-à-Dieu. He said many of his early shifts lasted up to 36 hours. 

In a province with more than 65,000 people on the list for a primary care provider, Patel knows that shutting down his practice will have an impact. His 500 patients will now be without a family doctor.

He was one of only three doctors working at a busy Sydney walk-in clinic. Patel has been covering shifts at the clinic once a week for the past 20 years. The majority of patients who go there have no family doctor. 

Patel said governments need to work together to change the funding model so treating patients at walk-in clinics is more appealing to physicians. He noted he receives more money from the province's medical insurance program for seeing patients at his practice.

"We approached some members of Parliament to solve this issue. They are not doing anything ... I forecast that [the walk-in clinic] might be closed."

Patel to stay in Cape Breton

Patel said he will be taking his retirement one day at a time. But one thing is for certain — he and his wife plan to remain on Cape Breton Island. 

"My son in Toronto wanted me to move there.... I said, no, I'm not moving out of Cape Breton. This is my home," said Patel.

The octogenarian said the thing he will miss the most is seeing patients every day. But he said he'll be around, even if the relationships he formed over the years will change.

"They just love me. I told them ... I'll still be here. I'll be seeing you as a friend, not as a doctor."


Erin Pottie


Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 17 years. Story ideas welcome at