Stephen Blizzard

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

How does a young man from the outskirts of Port-of-Spain ascend to become one of the most respected servicemen, and most decorated West Indians in the Canadian Airforce? By determination, focus and self-confidence, Dr. Stephen Blizzard straddled two professions and became a celebrated trailblazer in the little known field where they both merge – aviation medicine.

Stephen Blizzard was an early pioneer in this specialised field, also referred to as flight, aerospace or space medicine, and is one of few persons worldwide, and the only Caribbean national, to successfully combine the fields of aviation and medicine.

Practitioners of aviation medicine study, discover, prevent and treat medical conditions that can affect pilots, aircrew and persons involved in space flight. These conditions arise as a result of the specific and, at times, adverse environments and the flight stresses that these professionals are constantly exposed to, including rapid acceleration, pressure changes and long-term air travel. These can lead to problems with perception and motion sickness. Aviation medicine also studies the impact of fatigue, disorientation and medication on pilot performance. Doctors of aviation medicine, therefore, play an integral role in maintaining the safety and comfort of millions of pilots, aircrew and passengers of private, commercial and military aircraft worldwide.

Stephen Blizzard is listed in Cambridge Publishing’s 2008 publication, Top 101 Industry Experts. He obtained his Diploma in Aviation Medicine from the Royal Air Force Institute of Aviation Medicine in England, and was one of very few persons in the world’s Air Forces and Air Arms to have earned the distinction of Dual Designator- Flight Surgeon and Pilot.

While Blizzard is recognized for his work in this area, this was not in fact his first career. He initially trained and practised as a veterinarian. But both the military and medicine had captured his heart as a boy.

Born and raised in Belmont, he attended the Moulton Hall Methodist School, where his father, Egerton was the headmaster. His mother, Engracia, was also a teacher at secondary schools in Port-of-Spain. He says he learned self- discipline and good study habits from his father, and persistence from his mother. He attributes his compassion for the less fortunate to growing up in Belmont and attending a “downtown” school in his early life.

Blizzard placed 3rd in the secondary school entrance examination and won a college exhibition to attend Queen’s Royal College (QRC).Growing up in a period engulfed in the Second World War, and witnessing the strong presence of British and American soldiers in Trinidad, sparked his passion for aviation and military life. Around the age of 12, he began building model airplanes. He also became the troop leader of QRC’s 4thAir Scout patrol, “The Swifts”, and later, a corporal in the cadet corps.

When he left secondary school, Blizzard worked for the treasury as a clerk. While there, he applied for, and received, a government scholarship to pursue veterinary medicine at The University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He earned his the field and Membership of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (MRCVS) concurrently over the course of five years. He described this achievement as quite difficult with only 40% of students of that cohort successful in the feat. While he was in Scotland, he joined the Edinburgh University Air Squadron, flying Tiger Moths. This decision would prove to be the first step in his career in aviation.

On completing his studies, Blizzard returned to Trinidad at age 24 to fulfill his contractual obligations. He worked as a government veterinarian for five years and was the youngest veterinarian in Trinidad and Tobago at that time. During this period, he continued to fly with the Light Aeroplane Club of Trinidad and Tobago and obtained a private pilot’s license in 1955.

However, Blizzard’s interest in becoming a medical doctor never waned. It had, in fact, been reinforced after he learned that his father had also once aspired to become a doctor but could not, due to his financial circumstances. Blizzard believes,“He would have been a great doctor because of his empathetic and caring nature, and his attentiveness when interacting with people. He was my inspiration, a great mentor to me, and I owe all my success to him.”

The chance to fulfill the dream of father and son came when he relocated to Canada in 1958 to become a member of the faculty at the Ontario Veterinary College as a graduate assistant in the Department of Surgery. During his time there he continued to fly by obtaining his Canadian private pilot license. After one year in this position, he enrolled at the Medical School of the University of Western Ontario. While in his first year, he joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Programme to help pay for his studies. He was selected as one of 60 medical students across Canada to participate in the 45-month subsidization plan. This meant that his education was subsidized on the condition that he would serve as a medical officer for three years after graduating. Out of the 60 students in his cohort, Blizzard was one of six that were selected for permanent commissions while the other students returned to civilian life.

He worked at the National Defence Medical Centre (NDMC) in Ottawa, and upon graduating in 1963, he became the first resident in surgery at NDMC. He would eventually be promoted to the positions of Base Surgeon and Flight Surgeon. During his time at NDMC, he did a flight surgeons course in 1967 at the Royal Canadian Airforce (RCAF) Institute of Aviation Medicine in Toronto, and it was this that sparked his interest in aviation medicine. At the same time, he began pilot training to fly two types of jets-basic training on the Tutor, and advanced training on the T33 Silver Star. He describes this period as the most challenging of his career, as he was juggling two professional positions and enrollment at RCAF, while also working towards earning his wings. He was, nevertheless, able to obtain his Canadian commercial pilot’s license in 1967, while concurrently performing his duties as base surgeon at the Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw- a feat that, to this day, not many people have accomplished.

Dr. Blizzard eventually spent 16 years in the Canadian Armed Forces (C.A.F), first as a flight surgeon/military jet pilot, with promotions to the posts of Senior Medical Officer and, eventually, Deputy Commanding Officer of the Central Aircrew Medical Board. He served at many bases in Canada as well as the Middle East and Zimbabwe. He was also the Canadian representative on several North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) committees. He served on the Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development, the Air Standardization Coordinating committee, the Aeromedical Working Party/Military Agency for Standarization, and the Joint Committee on Aviation Pathology.

As a civilian, he spent 12 years in the Directorate of Civil Aviation Medicine, Department of Health and Welfare, serving as a senior consultant, Chief of the Civil Aviation Medical Unit, and a member of the Aviation Medical Review Board. He also wrote two government publications titled, “Flight Times and Flight Duty Times in Canada”, which is still used as a reference in Canada, and “Patient Care in Flight”, which is utilized around the world.

In 1969, Blizzard returned to Trinidad and Tobago, where he practiced medicine privately for six years before returning to Canada. He was also the Aviation Medical Examiner for pilots with licenses from the USA, UK, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. During this time, he presented the first paper in aviation medicine in the Commonwealth Caribbean titled, “The Aerial Transportation of Patients.” He also returned to his boyhood interest and served as Headquarters Commissioner for Air Scouts in Trinidad and Tobago from 1973 to 1975, as well as instructor of the 16th Port of Spain Air Scouts.

Throughout his career, Dr. Blizzard participated in groundbreaking events in the field. He was a member of the medical team on the first airlift of Vietnamese refugees to Canada from Malaysia. He was also the only non-American member of the Aerospace Medical Delegation visiting the Soviet Union in 1990, where they were the first group of aerospace medical specialists permitted to visit the Russian Space Program.

Blizzard has been honoured, both locally and abroad, for his pioneering work in aviation medicine. In 2011, he was recognized with the National Meritorious Service Medal of the Quebec Area of the Air Cadet League of Canada. He was also presented with a pin for his 25 years’ service to the 410 Wing. In 2010, he received Cambridge Publishing’s highest honour, “Professional of the Year” in the field of aviation medicine. In 2007, he was the 16th person worldwide to be honored withthe Dr. Forrestand Pamela Bird Lifetime Scientific Achievement Award for his contribution to safety in civil aviation. In 2004, he was the recipient of the Dr. Wilbur Franks Award for his significant contributions to the advancement of aerospace medicine and air medical transport. This award is considered to be the highest Canadian accolade in the field of aviation medicine. In 1992, he was made a member of the International Academy of Aviation and Space Medicine.

Stephen Blizzard continued flying until the age of 78 when he stopped due to age-related health conditions. But he remained engaged with the Royal Canadian Air Cadets and the Air Scouts in Trinidad. While there are many highlights from the 42 years of his rich and varied professional life, one of the most memorable and enjoyable for him was his role as a flying instructor for five years and Chairman for four years at the Light Aeroplane Club of Trinidad and Tobago. During his tenure, the club gained the reputation as one of the best flying clubs in the world. As flying instructor, he trained students to Canadian Airforce standards and finds it “most gratifying to know that none of them ever had an accident or crash.” He also had the pleasure of training the 5th and 6th female pilots in Trinidad and Tobago. At the club, he developed life-long friendships which he treasures to this day.

In his leisure time, Blizzard enjoys music, reading widely, writing and, of course, aviation. He believes that aerospace medicine will always have a bright future because it encompasses all aspects of medicine pertaining to that particular environment, including the fitness to fly of aircrew, astronauts, cosmonauts and passengers; the human factors in aircraft accident investigation; and ongoing research into the effects of flight on the human body.With respect to the latter, from a military perspective for example, aircraft will become faster and designed to carry more troops and equipment for longer distances. With civilian flights, travelling non-stop for lengthy periods increases the possibility of faster spread of communicable diseases, which will require controlling. In addition to such factors, he believes that aerospace medicine will become even more important as the boundaries of space are pushed further, given the many advances made in the field since the start of space exploration.

Stephen Blizzard’s lifelong passion for his field extends to his continually seeking opportunities to pass on the benefit of his expertise to today’s generation.The wisdom distilled from his experiences and accomplishments is put simply: “To succeed, you have to set goals and work hard towards achieving them. Don’t waste time with frivolous activities.There is no substitute for hard work.”