Dr. Bill Nelems
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NELEMS, Dr. Bill: Bill Nelems died on March 31, 2017. He was 77. Bill was a remarkable man - groundbreaking thoracic surgeon, community leader, development practitioner, internationalist, and devoted husband, father and grandfather. The Canadian medical community will remember Bill as a pioneer in his field. He was the first surgeon in Canada to perform a lung transplant. He was the first in the world to use ECMO - a technique now routinely used for treatment of advanced respiratory failure - in support of lung transplantation. And his pioneering efforts led directly to several global lung transplant milestones. When, later in life, he opened and led BC's Cancer Centre of Southern Interior, he was the first practicing surgeon to lead an administration of a regional cancer facility. His dedication to rural health care led him to work with colleagues to develop a tele-medicine service using videoconferencing to provide thoracic surgical consultation to patients living in remote areas in Northern BC. In recognition of his work, Bill received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and the CATS Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. Born to Canadian parents in South Africa, Bill studied in Canada, the UK and the Netherlands. He was a proud Canadian and also an internationalist. He was a passionate advocate for gender equality, diversity, human rights social justice and international development. Bill was a force to be reckoned with. No physical or mental challenge was too great. He celebrated his 70th birthday while cycling 4,500 km through Southern Africa to raise money to support healthcare in Zambia. This was one of the many ways he supported the Okanagan-Zambia Health Initiative (OkaZHI), a small Canadian NGO he founded to connect medical practitioners in the Okanagan with those in Zambia. The focus was education, mentoring and building human resource capacity and empowerment both here and in a remote Western Province of Zambia. Bill mentored, encouraged, supported and inspired countless with his creative and humorous charm. As a passionate feminist, he championed his daughters to study, travel, and pursue fulfilling careers. He made sure they also knew there was nothing they could not achieve. A lifelong learner, Bill obtained his first degree in Engineering in 1962, followed by a second degree in Medicine in 1966. That was just the beginning. After a series of medical specializations over many decades, he then obtained a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology in 1997. His latest project was studying for a second medical specialty in Chronic Pain Management by writing the Royal College's newly created exam in Pain Medicine. He was about to become the oldest Canadian ever to write a Royal College Fellowship exam. Bill's immediate family is holding a private gathering this weekend. Recognizing the role Bill played in the wider community, they will hold a public celebration of life in a few months. In the meantime, Bill's family are reflecting on an appropriate legacy for his philanthropic work. This will be announced at the celebration of life. The family ask that well-wishers consider donating to this legacy, once announced, in lieu of sending flowers now. They are deeply grateful to all who have expressed their love, admiration and gratitude for Bill's extraordinary life. Bill is survived by his wife Mary Ellen; his daughters, Sarah, Martha, Rebeccah, Rachel and Bev; his grandchildren, Alexander, Kate, Lucy, Willem, Everest, Mandy and Tess; his sister Beverley Barron; his nephews, Paul, John and Graham; and his sons-in-law Ed, Chris and Cory. Celebrate the amazing life of Bill Nelems on Friday, August 25th, 2017 from 2-5 PM at Trinity Baptist Church, 1905 Springfield Road, Kelowna, BC. Condolences may be sent to the family by visiting www.springfieldfuneralhome.com, 250-860-7077.

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Published in Okanagan Valley Newspaper Group on Apr. 8, 2017.
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Memories & Condolences
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27 entries
February 17, 2020
My sincere heartfelt condolences to Dr. Bill Nelems Family..
Robin Islio
July 30, 2019
Dr Nelems save my life when I was living in Vancouver. I have a lung cancer and now I.m free cancer, I always remenber him, God take take of him my zoulou.
Angelique Esparbe
January 10, 2019
I just learned of Dr. Nelem's passing. Dr.Nelem's took a risk by performing surgery on me and he gave me my life back when so many others here in Ontario moved on to easier patients. He was so kind to me and calming during the process, followed up with me by calling personally and genuinely cared. My condolences to his family and friends. His kindness changed my life and every day I pay it forward to others.
Darryl Simpson
September 9, 2018
I recently learned of Dr. Nelems death, what a loss!
Dr. Nelems did my surgery for Thoracic Outlet . It was a difficult recovery, however Dr. Nelems was consistently kind, optimistic, and encouraging. He was a wonderful person, brilliant and diligent. I was so lucky to have his expertise to assist me. Sending sympathy to Mary Ellen, the children and all his family. May he Rest In Peace.
Sandra Frederiks
August 24, 2017
Awesome man understood the injures from motorcycle MVA although the condition was ongoing and not expected to improve he offered short term relive with the many prolo therapy injections I received over the past 8 years he always made me feel like I had known him for years , Bill made coming to see him and get needles poked in all over my torso as painless as possible and always had a gentle way about him he truly was a healer and friend it didn't feel like he was a Dr he made the visits something to look foward too in spite of the needles I always left feeling better then when I arrived . He will be missed and his friends and family all know what a wonderful spirit he was .
Gordon Cunningham
August 24, 2017
Bill was a student in my counselling psychology clinic at UBC many years ago along with Mary Ellen. I was impressed that a successful surgeon and academic would return to school to learn to become a better communicator and healer. Needless to say Bill was an exceptional , kind and considerate counsellor.
Rod McCormick
July 21, 2017
Dr. Nelems
I had the privilege of meeting him many years ago, he performed 2 separate thoracic surgeries on my wife Nona. Later at the pain clinic where he treated my eldest and Nona. Earlier this year he confirmed Nona had Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus. I can still feel his warm hug while he said I am so sorry
He cared so much for the well being of my family, my wife just lit up when she seen him. To date I have not been able to tell her of Dr.Nelems passing.

Our deepest sympathy to you Mary Ellen and your family

Adrian Bennett
Adrian Bennett
May 28, 2017
Our deepest sympathy Mary Ellen, to you and your family.

I was a patient of Dr. Nelems, and I had the best treatment ever, as he lead me through the journey of 2 surgeries. I was so terrified. He was so compassionate and comforted both my husband and I through with so much grace. He changed my life!

Later, following another motor vehicle accident, I saw Dr. Nelems again at the pain clinic. He always greeted me with a big warm hug and he would hold my hand. He was so amazing!

I will miss him. Warm hugs to you and your family.
Connie Urquhart
May 10, 2017
Such a compassionate man! I am very proud to say I shared a brief period of time working for Bill. "Just Do It" was his motto, and then ask for forgiveness later. You are missed Bill - Charlene Crumback
Charlene Crumback
May 8, 2017
The members of the BC Telehealth Development Committee would like to offer their sincere condolences to the family of Dr. Bill Nelems. Dr. Nelems was one of the 'pioneers' involved in the development of the delivery of telemedicine services within BC. He was always a strong advocate for the service and never hesitated to share his knowledge and learnings with others. A wonderful advisor, he played an integral role in a federally funded provincial project to expand Telehealth services to more communities, more clinicians and more patients. Dr. Nelems was a great leader, teacher and colleague. We will always remember his contribution to our work in Telehealth; and we will never forget his good humour, his smile and his generosity.
April 28, 2017
Bill was Always there for me, so caring, with the biggest heart and helping hand. Bill was not only my Doctor but my friend, I called him my Hero. Always researching looking for better treatments for his patients. I am so grateful to have been on the receiving end of his research and being the recipient of his knowledge and care in my treatment.
My heart hurts thinking I will never get a hug, hold your hand cry or laugh with you again. The world has lost a beautiful heart & soul and I, a very, very special friend. Bill will always hold a special place in my heart and be missed dearly. To Maryellen and family my deepest sympathy and condolences.
Bill you are forever a Hero in my heart.
Jacqueline Bernhardsson
Jacqueline & Arnar Bernhardsson
April 14, 2017
Bill Nelems and I spent four years in medical school together from 1962-1966. I got to know him better during our last year when we served as clinical clerks at the Wellesley Hospital. Our friendship grew after graduation such that Bill and Wendy were scheduled to visit us in Bracebridge, Ontario on the very weekend when the first lung transplant done in Canada and done by Bill and his team put our plans on hold.
After my wife, Adele, and I returned from three years of medical mission work in Zambia we had another connection with Bill because of his history with that country.
We remember fondly a wonderful visit with Bill and Mary Ellen in Kelowna in 1999 in their beautiful home overlooking the city.
We would look forward to our medical class reunions whenever Bill could make them and particularly enjoyed getting caught up at our 50th last May.
Bill was indeed a remarkable individual. He was one of a kind. He will be greatly missed.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to Mary Ellen and the family at this time.
Norman Kee
April 12, 2017
Bill was a mentor for me. It's a title we reserve for only a handful of people in our lives and he well deserved that distinction for myself. He taught me the "art" of being a physician. How to treat people, talk to them and help them through difficult times. Bill was a true master at this: an incredibly caring man. On his last day in our O.R. I specifically asked to have the honor of giving the anesthetic for his final case. It was a special moment for me and I attach a picture of us after that day. I will miss him greatly and be forever thankful of the wisdom he left behind.
Rob Eger
April 12, 2017
Dear Mary Ellen, Sarah, and Rachel.

My association with Bill goes back many years in his role in the UBC Clinical Faculty in Surgery in Vancouver, and later in Kelowna. He was a remarkable physician and a gentleman who passionately cared for his patients. He was inspirational and one of the reasons I was so pleased to come to the Cancer Centre of the Southern Interior in 1997 as the Professional Practice Leader in Radiation Oncology. He was the Regional Vice-President and so effectively headed the Leadership Team that was vital to the smooth opening of the third full service cancer centre in BC after a long and at times difficult path. Bill looked for excellence not only in the standards of medical care but also for understanding how cancer affects all aspects of our patients' humanity. In addition to his skill as a surgeon in curative cancer care, he respected the roles of radiation and medical oncology in cancer management. Further,he was a believer in advancing excellence in palliative care and pain management. Bill was always encouraging, and so ardent about our need to provide holistic care in cancer management. Many colleagues and patients alike will remember him with profound respect and gratitude.
Dr. Randall Fairey
April 12, 2017
It was with great sadness we received the news of Bill's passing. I've had the pleasure of knowing Bill for over 20 years, initially as a resident at UBC, then as a colleague in Kelowna. His knowledge, experience and skill were only outmatched by his compassion, humour and affability. We are fortunate that he has shared so much of himself with his family, friends, colleagues and patients. In that, at least, he is still among us. Our deepest condolences to his family.
Steve Kwong
April 11, 2017
Sad news. Condolences to Bill's family from his 1966 University of Toronto Medical School classmates. We enjoyed celebrating our 50th reunion with him and will miss him.
Ants Toi and all the class of Meds 6T6.
Ants Toi
April 11, 2017
Well Doc......At my last appt we laughed and said how we were stuck together like glue and how after 11 years we weren't giving up. I never imagined that we only had another two weeks together. My heart hurts every time I think about walking through that clinic door in a week and not having you there to hug me, hold my hand, reassure me and care for me. I so looked forward to our work together once I graduated.....My hope to have my boys volunteer alongside you in Africa was also a huge light to look forward to. I feel like so much was left undone but I am reminded of your never ending pursuit of accomplishments throughout your life and I feel selfish for wishing we could just have one more moment together. Your life has lit mine up. Your strength has guided me and held me strong in moments that I've wanted to give up. I will miss you completely with my whole soul but I know you watch over me and protect me from above.

To your family.....My heartfelt condolences to you. I can't imagine the loss you must be experiencing at this time. The emptiness. Please know my thoughts and love are with you at this difficult time.
Marni Murray
April 10, 2017
Mary Ellen, I heard of Bill's passing from my daughter, Becky, in Sherwood Park who follows Facebook. God Bless You.
Seeing you, Rachael, and Bev. at the 6T6 50 year Reunion was, especially in retrospect,a special time of contact with his class-mates and a blessing for Me.
I would like to be advised of Celebration of Life plans when available
Keith Boughton 236-421-4331, kekaboughton@yahoo.ca
Keith Boughton
April 9, 2017
Dear Nelems family,
I was very saddened to hear the news of Bills passing. He was very special to me. He watched me grow up during my teenage years and was such a supportive and encouraging man. He leaves behind an amazing legacy, one that can be accomplished by very few.
I regarded Bill with high esteem and respect. He will be deeply missed. May your family find deep peace during this very hard time. Know he loves you all deeply and fiercely, and is smiling down upon you.
Katherine Pellizzari (nee Pain) xo
Katherine Pellizzari
April 9, 2017
May your legacy live on forever❤
You are missed..
Ken and Danielle Beaulieu
April 9, 2017
When I recieved the call that Bill had past away on April 1st and my appointment had to be cancelled, I thought this is a sick joke to play... then the tears came in a flood, Sad for his family, sad for him.. and sad for me, for we had a plan in place and he wasn't done treating me.. An amazing man.. I had bill as a thorastic surgeon... then onto a pain management Dr.. I've never met such an amazing, compassionate, loving, caring and funny Dr as Bill... I am so sad to loose my adopted grandpa as I use to tease him. I send love put to his family, they are so blessed to have this man in there life, as I was as well...
Bill you shall never ever be forgotten❤and I thank my lucky stars that I was given you as my Dr..my surgeon and pain Dr
You truly were the best Dr out there!
Thank you
Danielle xo
Danielle Beaulieu
April 8, 2017
April 8, 2017
We are all saddened to hear that the world has lost a great humanitarian and one of the finest medical professionals in the passing of Dr. Bill Nelems. He was a true family friend and a great mentor to my son Jay.
Nap Ruzesky, Kelowna, B.C.
April 8, 2017
Dr. Nelems was a constant light in the darkness of my journey with chronic pain. Throughout out years of uncertainty and misery - I was blessed to be referred to see Dr. Nelems.

I read up on him ahead of my first appointment and learned that he was an impressive surgeon - but upon meeting him - I immediately realized not only was he an impressive surgeon - he was also a very sincere, humble, empathetic man. I was struck with his compassion, warmth, and kindness. He took my hand and with such genuine care in his eyes, he told me that we were in this together - and he would be there every step along of the way of my recovery.

He is the only Doctor I have ever felt treated me as through I was a close friend. He made me feel like I was his most important patient, but watching him in the waiting room with his other patients - it was clear he had this special way of connecting with each of us, showing every patient they were truly cared for and at the heart of it - loved.

When my Husband (who is not a touchy feely person) would come to my appointments at the Hospital or Pain Clinic - Dr. Nelems would always pull him into a big hug. He would take both our hands, and lead us down the hallway all together, and most the time he would continue to hold our hands throughout the appointment. He just had this loving way about him.

I credit Dr. Nelems with my recovery. He really did stay true to his word that he would be with me every step along the way.

I am so honoured to have been lucky enough to know Dr. Nelems. He was a beautiful person, and I hope we can each do our best to emulate as many of his positive attributes in our daily lives - the world would be a better place for it.

My sincerest condolences to his family,

April 8, 2017
Dr. Bill Nelems was the operating Doctor for my single right lung transplant on May 14, 1997 at Vancouver General Hospital. What a fantastic person. My husband and I have kept in touch with Dr. Bill and are stunned at his passing. We extend warm hugs to his great family in their time of such loss. Dr. Bill will be missed by absolutely everyone who was touched by his genuine and loving nature.
Ann & Peter Davidson.
April 8, 2017
Mary Ellen and family,
I was truly saddened to hear about Dr. Bill passing. We spoke only a few days earlier at the course he and Mary Ellen were teaching. I always felt he understood what I was dealing with chronic pain. It turns out that the course that they taught has changed my life. He was kind, gentle and so understanding. He will be missed.
Arlene Hildred
April 8, 2017
I feel such sadness to hear this news. As a fellow Canadian/Zambian, I am in awe of what Bill has accomplished. Bill briefly cared for Mom (who knew his parents in Mufulira, Zambia) when she was diagnosed with lung cancer - a truly caring soul. My heart goes out to you Martha and Rebecca and family, from Barbara's sister Mary Elizabeth.
Mary Gilbert
April 8, 2017
So sorry for your loss Sarah, what an incredible man, loved by so many and what a difference he made in this world. May his legacies carry on. Xxx Linda O'Farrell
Linda O'Farrell
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