Dr. Helga Holst, MD’75

International Career Achievement Award

Acknowledges those whose international career accomplishments have brought distinction to themselves, their alma mater and their communities.

Long before Starbucks arrived on campus, and even before Mac Hall had a food court, we had students such as Dr. Helga Holst, MD’75, tucking away tender moments from her days as a UCalgary med school student. There were the raucous, and very politically incorrect, annual Med Show performances (Helga a.k.a. a ‘turkey,’ worked backstage in costume support for the 1975 cabaret production); TGIF parties; as well as skiing and hiking trips to the Rockies, recalls Holst from her home in Howick, South Africa. With dreams of being a general practitioner (GP), “the sort who knew you and your family and was competent in all medical fields, just like our hometown GP was,” this year’s recipient of the Arch Award for International Career Achievement never imagined she’d spend most of her working career in South Africa. Learning basic Zulu and then navigating the clinical unknowns and cultural complexities that came with attending patients who had HIV/AIDS never crossed her mind when she completed UCalgary’s MD program in 1975. Her tenacity and "can do" attitude also led her to implement a cataract service for a local rural population, encourage the development of an electronic medical-record system and catalyze powerful relationships between philanthropists, funders and researchers. Holst’s legacy, writes her nominator, will be “pure innovation.”

What is your idea of perfect happiness? It doesn’t exist. That said, one of my favourite things is to watch the sunrise from my patio with a cat or dog (and sometimes both) on my lap, sipping the first morning cup of coffee, and watching the garden, birds and wildlife wake up!

What is your greatest fear? Fear is not in my vocabulary. It’s not an option.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Procrastination.

What is the trait you most deplore in others? Deceitfulness; big egos.

Which living person do you most admire? Prof. Thuli Madonsela [Professor of Law and former Public Protector of South Africa who helped draft South Africa’s constitution which was promoted by President Nelson Mandela].

What is your greatest extravagance? In 1992, I bought a one-year around-the-world business class ticket so I could engage in adventure travel and work in different parts of the world to celebrate my 40th year.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Political party loyalty.

Which living person do you most dislike? Both are former presidents: [former South African president] Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump.

What is the quality you most like in a man? Integrity.

What is the quality you most like in a woman? Integrity.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “I’m late again!” and, “What would you like to do?”

What or who is the greatest love of your life? The present moment; learning something new.

When and where were you happiest? I feel the most complete during and after times of immersion in solitude in nature . . . walking in the woods, on trail rides in the desert, long mountain treks, canoeing, photography.

Which talent would you most like to have? I am content with those I already have, but I am considering developing more artistic skills in retirement.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? I prefer moving on, rather than coming back.

Where would you most like to live? Where I live now.

What is your most treasured possession? An inquiring mind.

What do you most value in your friends? Constancy.

Who are your favourite writers? So many . . . recently, I’ve been intrigued by The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy; Being Mortal: Medicine and What Happens in the End by Atul Gawande; and Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling.

Who is your hero in fiction? In my youth, I loved Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, The Little Prince, Pooh Bear . . .

What is your greatest regret? A medical abortion which I did to “save” a teenager’s life in 1985. She was a brittle, insulin-dependent diabetic, living in a deep rural area. She never looked at me again, never forgave me . . . and died a few weeks later.

What is your motto? I have quite a few: “Carpe diem”; “Do no harm”; “Together we can” (thank you, President Obama); “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others” (an African proverb); “Don’t tell me what you believe, show me what you do.”

Who, or what, has influenced your approach to medicine? The words of 6th-century BC Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, who said: “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’”

Dr. Helga Holst, MD’75

When several of my medical school classmates approached me with their request to nominate me for the coveted ARCH award, I was quite floored. I thought my life and work was quite ordinary at many levels… I just saw what needed to be done and got on with it. Through their perceptive questions and reflections, I realized that the challenges which presented themselves through the course of my career, especially in South Africa, became opportunities for positive impact both locally and to some extent internationally. I am deeply grateful to you three special Turkees, for probing deeper, for your keen interest, support and long-term friendship.

Helga Holst

These visionary alumni are changing the world with vision and purpose. Meet the 2021 Arch Award recipients.