Dr. Dave Carll, the Medical contributor for the Bay Observer, died suddenly last month on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where he had been living since his retirement 13 years ago.
What emerges in discussions with Mississippi residents who knew “Doc,” as they called him, is a portrait of a man who spent his last years, in a somewhat nomadic existence, tirelessly scrounging food and supplies to donate, first to hurricane victims, but later to thousands of desperately and chronically poor people in the region; and in doing, becoming a beloved figure along the Gulf Coast.
This reporter got to know Dr. Dave Carll as a patient in the early 1980’s in Paris Ontario where he operated a busy family medical practice. From the beginning, what separated Dave Carll from many in his profession was his down-to-earth folksy manner. He was a good communicator, avoiding the usual medical-speak, setting patients at ease. As news director at CHCH I was tasked with expanding our news offerings, to include a noon-hour program that was intended to be a mix of news and lighter fare. I thought of Dave’s breezy communication style and that was the beginning of almost a decade of weekly medical segments hosted and largely created by Dave. From the beginning Dave was innovative in the perspectives he brought to the TV segments, sometimes going to Mac Medical centre to interview experts or to talk about the latest medical breakthroughs. It was not uncommon to see Dave arrive at the studio carrying a plastic spinal column or a model of a heart that could be pulled apart to reveal what was inside.
Dave was always searching to do things differently. Long before the current system of Family Medical Teams was introduced, Dave had set up his own version in Paris. He took a gamble and built on his own dime, a medical centre, that in addition to housing his practice, had space for a dentist, a pharmacy, and offices for specialists from Hamilton who Dave would entice to come to the clinic for a day on a rotating basis. In so doing he greatly enhanced the quality and scope of medical care in a small town. Dave was a risk taker. In his years in Paris he made, and lost considerable amounts of money. During the good times he build a massive home on the banks of the Grand River that was the talk of the town. He drove expansive muscle cars from time to time. But even then one sensed that Dave was not driven by material goods. He had known poverty in his youth, His mother raised him on her own and worked hard to ensure that Dave would go to medical school and become a doctor.
Despite his easy communication with patients Dave could be blunt in his manner with authority figures, and was sometimes a source of controversy with his medical peers. He enraged the local medical community and beyond, when he supported the closure of the emergency ward at the tiny hospital in Paris, saying it lacked the resources to properly care for serious trauma cases. Dave liked to test his trauma skills by serving as an ER surgeon at Hospitals in Hamilton and Brantford. He had even done trauma work in the Middle East.
True to his restless nature and hunger for new experiences now 60, Dave abruptly retired–shutting down what had been the most progressive medical clinic in Brant County, selling his assets and purchasing a summer home in Biloxi Mississippi. It was August 2005. Two days later, Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1800 people and causing $125 Billion in damage. Dave’s retirement was short lived. Almost immediately he started contacting local relief agencies to see where he could help. It was the beginning of a new chapter in Dave’s life—full time relief worker. For the next 13 years Dave would spend every waking moment scrounging food and supplies from large companies like Chiquita Banana and PepsiCo, and then distributing it to people in need.
A small-town Newspaper in Kentucky, where Dave had driven to pick up medical supplies, picks up the story quoting Dave: “One of my dreams when I retired was to own a truck … I retired down there (the gulf coast) two days before the hurricane. I had my truck with nothing to do but hit golf balls until the hurricane made other choices for me,” Carll said. Carll said he started helping move supplies around the storm ravaged area once the torrent ended with his new truck. After taking supplies back and forth across “the width of Mississippi” he eventually ran into Jim Paul, director of Ken-Tenn who was also down in the gulf coast helping with relief efforts. “Doc has helped bring over a $100 million of supplies to the gulf coast. He’s a Yankee, and he’s not even an American,” Paul says jokingly. “But he’s done more than anybody I know for the United States and the people of the coast and he still takes care of them.”
That story was written only three years after the disaster. Dave’s mission would continue for another decade. His work brought him into contact with another volunteer relief worker, Eleanor Jones who recalls Dave working from 7:30 in the morning on into the evening, scavenging for food and supplies and driving all over Mississippi and Louisiana delivering the goods. After the disaster cleanup, what became obvious was that there were still huge pockets of poverty that had existed long before the disaster. “Because we have a warm climate here in Mississippi, homeless people come down here from all over and live in the woods,” said Eleanor Jones. “They live in tents and under tarps, a lot of people were scared to go into the woods where they were, but not “Doc” he’d take them food.”
Dave wheedled food companies to give him surplus food, often ending up with pallets of the stuff. “Everybody loved Doc,” said Evelyn, We would put on a Halloween party for a thousand kids, and Doc would show up with the truck loaded with Candy…same thing at Easter with an Easter Egg hunt. He was just like Santa Claus…he had the kids laughing—they absolutely loved him.” Carolyn Thompson, A retired Nurse, operating the Tri-Coastal Community Outreach said of Dave, “He saw so much need and so much waste—people were hungry and he felt it was wasteful to throw so much stuff away.”
As a Canadian Dave was required to return to Canada for half of the year to maintain health care and pension eligibility. Again volunteering was at the centre of his mission. This time helping rescue animals. Lindsay Baker, the Manager of Volunteer Services at the Vancouver Aquarium, remembers Dave showing up in 2012 offering his services in whatever capacity he could be useful. “Because of his medical background we placed Dave in our Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, where he helped rehabilitate injured seals and eventually get them back into their natural habitat.” Dave contributed thousands of hours at the Centre, and headed a team of 6 to 8 younger volunteers to whom he soon became a mentor. “He loved to tell stories about some of the cool things he encountered in Mississippi, said Lindsay. There were also menial tasks to perform and Dave became known as the “king of the power washer.”
During his 13 years on the Gulf Coast, Dave appeared to have depleted most of his personal assets in his relief work. He burned through three trucks over that time. At least three homes were sold, and at his death Dave was living in a hotel. Still those who worked alongside him described a perpetually cheerful man enjoying his work. After a Christmas visit to Canada, Dave returned to Mississippi in the middle of January and resumed his deliveries. Three days before his death Eleanor noticed that Dave seemed exhausted, he was unable to unload his pickup truck. He told her he had slept for 17 hours straight. She told him he had to slow down. The following Sunday Dave stopped by an area casino where he was in the habit of frequenting on Sundays to take advantage of the inexpensive meals that were offered to entice customers. Sometime that evening he suffered a fatal heart attack. David John Carll was 73.
Eleanor Jones said Dave was a “godly man” even though he did not attend church, who gave his lifetime helping other people. Carolyn Thompson said “he was an awesome person, very caring about his fellow man, — if there was a need, Dave wanted to meet it, wherever it was and whoever needed help.” The people in Mississippi are looking to regroup to try to keep Dave’s work alive. Said Lindsay Baker in Vancouver, “ Dave was dedicated. He had a big personality, he was passionate on life. The way he mentored staff and the youngsters in particular—that is his legacy. He had a profound impact on people.”