Healthy planet, healthy people: One doctor’s quest for change

April 22, 2024

Dr. Kyle Merritt realized he had to do more for the planet during a two-week stretch of thick wildfire smoke in 2021 that saw his family sheltering inside their Nelson home.

“As a parent of two young children, I was wondering how dangerous it would be for them to go outside,” remembers Kyle. “I also thought about the childhood I had growing up in Castlegar, playing outside in the forests – there were no wildfire seasons then. It hit me things are changing and changing quickly.”
Wildfire smoke affects the most vulnerable in our community (Nelson Star)

The emergency department physician at Kootenay Lake Hospital was also seeing the effects of climate change in his patients. “My patients were being impacted by the heat and smoke, especially seniors and those with mental and chronic illnesses. They described feeling trapped and oppressed by the polluted air, and the number of people with depression and anxiety seemed to double,” he explains. “They were asking me for advice on how to adapt, whether they could take their newborn for a walk, or exercise outside.”

At around the same time Kootenay residents were suffering from heat and wildfire smoke, Kyle attended a climate emergency conference at UBC.

A man in a grey jacket, track pants and cycling helmet leans on a blue bike attached to a yellow trailer in which two children covered in a green blanket sit
Kyle is an enthusiastic cyclist and supporter of active transportation.

“Physicians from B.C. and all around the world were talking about planetary health,” shares Kyle. “This was a new term for me. It struck me, how can we think about human health without clean air and water? I also realized this kind of work could be part of my professional role at Interior Health.”

Kyle has long considered himself an environmentalist; he is a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. However, he knew then he had to do something bigger.

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