Japanese Canadian gastroenterologist was recognized for his work with end stage liver disease. From left to right, B.C. Premier Christy Clark, Dr. Eric Yoshida and Lt. Gov. Judith Guichan during the Order of B.C. ceremony at Government House. Photo courtesy: Province of British Columbia.
VANCOUVER – On June 14, Dr. Eric Yoshida was awarded the Order of British Columbia, the highest distinction a province can bestow upon its citizens.
Yoshida, along with 15 other honoured British Columbians and their friends and families were invited to a ceremony where B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichan presented them with the awards.
“British Columbia’s greatest strength is British Columbians – people who use their talents and passions to make a difference both here at home and, in many cases, around the world,” said Premier Christy Clark at the ceremony. “On behalf of all British Columbians, I want to thank this year’s recipients for their dedication, and everything they do to make B.C. a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family.”
“To be on the stage with Christy Clark, incredible feeling, you kind of have this feeling that you’re unworthy,” Yoshida tells the Nikkei Voice in an interview. Now that time has passed, he has been able to appreciate the ceremony for what it was. “It was enjoyable – but at the time there were lots of butterflies in my stomach,” he says.
Yoshida, who is a professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and the head of gastroenterology at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) is far from ‘unworthy’. Receiving his award for his clinical research in liver disease, he has changed the medical culture not only in B.C., but also the rest of North America. Because of this, Yoshida has also changed the lives of people who receive medical treatment for liver disease.
In his clinical research, Yoshida found that First Nations people in B.C. are more likely to suffer from primary biliary cirrhosis and autoimmune liver disease. This changed the medical assumption from negative stereotypes, that First Nations coming to the hospital with liver disease were alcoholics, which would make them ineligible to have liver transplants.
Yoshida says he has watched patients break down in tears after he has told them that they suffer from this disease and that their illness is not caused by alcoholism.
“Medical culture assumed it was alcoholic liver disease – that they were drinkers,” he says. “All their lives it has been the assumption that they have been drinking and not telling anyone.”
Yoshida completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Western Ontario Science and his Medical Degree at the University of Toronto before moving to Vancouver for his residency. He made his name in the medical community starting 20 years back with his research and advocacy with Hepatitis B in Asian Canadian communities in B.C. The B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS estimates there are 60,000 people infected with Hepatitis B in B.C., and 300,000 people in Canada. Hepatitis B is prevalent in Asian communities in B.C., says Yoshida. This is because people are emigrating from countries where there are high Hepatitis B rates.
Hepatitis B can be transmitted through sexual intercourse or contact with infected blood, but often in countries with high Hepatitis rates like China, the disease is passed from mother to child through child birth, says Yoshida.
Hepatitis B is a disease that attacks the liver and is the main cause of liver disease and patients often need liver transplants. Twenty years ago, people with Hepatitis B could not get liver transplants because shortly after the surgery, the disease would infect the healthy liver, says Yoshida.
Hepatitis B medication was very expensive and not funded by Pharmacare, B.C.’s drug plan. Yoshida says he wrote letters to the health minister, asking the government to fund the medication, but got a response that was basically, thanks but no thanks.
He also received pushback from the general B.C. community, because a high number of patients with Hepatitis B were Asian immigrants. “People would say, ‘why should we fund drugs for foreigners?’ Which of course only made me angrier,” says Yoshida.
When Yoshida became involved with a group called S.U.C.C.E.S.S., his mission began to get some traction. S.U.C.C.E.S.S. is a social services group initially for Chinese immigrants, but now a multi-cultural group. Campaigning with the group, Yoshida’s cause caught the attention of Chinese media, which then caught the attention of mainstream media, and his campaign took off. Yoshida was able to push the provincial government into funding Hepatitis B medication, as well as lobbying for $400,000 to fund Hepatitis B education programs aimed at Asian immigrants. According to a B.C. Hepatitis Program survey that focused on Asian Canadians, 70 per cent of people with the disease are not seeing a doctor and 88 per cent are not taking medication to treat the disease.
Yoshida’s work has made a difference in the medical community, but also in his patients’ lives. “I get more Christmas gifts than any gastroentrologist in VGH,” he laughs.
The Order of British Columbia was not his first award, and it certainly won’t be his last. Yoshida has also received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal among others. “For the future it inspired me to do more – I’m not going to retire anytime soon,” he says.
“The fight goes on, I’ll be here for a long time.”