This month we interviewed Dr. Chris Doyle-Kelly. Dr. Doyle-Kelly is a PGY-2 in Emergency Medicine, the co-founder of a whitewater rafting company in Iceland, and the founder of an organization,”Wheels for Life”, where he delivered ambulances and medical equipment to communities in Central America.
We certainly had a lot to talk about with him. Happy reading!
You are a co-founder of Viking Rafting, a whitewater rafting company in Iceland recently recognized by TripAdvisor for being in the top 10% highest rated tour operators in the world. How did the company come about? Are there any lessons you have learned through co-founding a company that may speak to some of our entrepreneurial resident readers?
I’ll make my best attempt at the short version of the story… Once-upon-a-time on a snowy summer day in the fjords of north Iceland, a young Canadian river bum and a wise Nepalese whitewater guru met, became good friends, fell in love with the most beautiful river canyon they’d ever seen, and went on to decide that their love of paddling and lack of business experience made them the perfect duo to launch the best company in the world! In many ways it’s the perfect “fake it ’til you make it” story. Of course this version lacks a few juicy details, like the time we accidentally ended up partners with some of Iceland’s most notorious white-collar banking criminals. It also shamelessly fails to credit the generations of wild and wacky guides that came from all over the planet to pour their colourful souls and world-class skills into our common vision of “taking our fun seriously”. But somehow many elements of our original dream ended up coming true, if only in our minds.
While I am certainly no authority on entrepreneurship, I have gained a lot of experience from crashing head first into hard lessons. I learned early on that big projects take time to conquer, no matter how little we sleep. They also take good people and strong teamwork, which require leaders that are out front pulling hard, not pushing from behind. In order to bring our best selves to these roles we need to enjoy the process, and not discount the importance of the moment for a fantasy of the future. Business (and medicine for that matter) is no different; the lure of the bottom line has so much potential to distract us from what actually matters. This is extremely common and dangerously normalized all around us. For this reason we threw out the business playbook early on, recognizing it was out of line with our most basic and obvious core values– our rivers, our employees, our clients, and having as much damn fun as possible! After that it was very easy to stay in touch with the underlying passion from which the business was born: our intense love for paddling whitewater with old and new friends. The energy, creativity, great people, and magic followed naturally.
Last thought. By far one of the most rewarding aspects of having arrived at where we are, and in the way we have, is that our organization has developed the power to accomplish things way beyond our capacity as individuals. One example– a few years ago we were part of a heroic local resistance against what would have been a shamefully unnecessary and ecologically devastating private hydroelectric project. Because of our collective self-driven sense of responsibility toward our natural environment, this stands out as one of our most impressive successes (and hopefully long-term legacies) as a company.
Is there a balance you’ve found between residency in BC and guiding tours in Iceland?
Hahaha yes, 99% residency!
Do you have any memorable experiences guiding the trips?
Definitely. The majority of my best memories come from days on the water. But this is no coincidence; these “memorable experiences” are my raison d’être and the currency in which I measure personal wealth. The bonds that we form in the shared experience at the extremes of fun, fear, awe, and physical and psychological challenge are unique and powerful. I know this to be true in many contexts, and the river just happens to be one type of catalyst. Everyone who guides these types of trips has at some point formed lasting friendships with their clients in just a matter of hours, people who were strangers to them earlier the same day. As for our fellow guides, those special experiences we share at the fringes of the world bring us together like family. There’s just something in the water!
Two quick stories… The first was actually a terrifying accident that occurred one day during our first season in business, in which one of our guests suffered a major spinal injury. I share the story here because it has a miraculously happy ending, and for me became one of the stronger inspirations driving my pursuit of emergency medicine. What ensued that day was by far the most involved and challenging river rescue I have ever experienced, and what I believe may well be one of the most impressive in commercial rafting history. That day pushed all of us (including our patient) to the limits of our skills and emotions, and has bonded us for life.
The second is a bit of a claim-to-fame, but a really fun one. I had the opportunity to guide the great Ben Stiller, legendary Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri, and a bunch of their friends for a day. They showed up at our base in a helicopter, Stiller whipped off his aviator glasses in one smooth Hollywood motion, scooped me up for the most awesome canyon flight of my life, and graciously put up with me calling him “Focker” all the way down the river (a bet from the team that I had to honour!). The most memorable part of it all was the round of hugs he gave at the end as he told us it was one of the most profound experiences of his life. We knew exactly what he meant.
You have also founded an organization called Wheels for Life, which is “a non-profit organization aiming to deliver ambulances and medical equipment to communities in Central America who depend entirely on donated equipment and volunteer workers to provide medical and rescue services to their people.” How did this other organization of yours come about? Could you share some of your experiences delivering ambulances and medical equipment in Central America?
You’re really testing my short story telling! “Wheels for Life” was initially a brand I gave to a single project, although it did become somewhat of a more formal organization once we found ourselves sitting on big bags of donated money! Simply put, the idea came from hearing of a need for modern ambulances in Central America (namely Honduras & Guatemala) and the [mis]perception that getting them there would be easy. My naive optimism took its first hit when I ended up in a series of bureaucratic dead ends trying to acquire retired ambulances by donation. Too deeply attached to the idea to give up, I decided instead to buy one. But there was one problem– I didn’t have any money, or the faintest clue as to what it would cost. So I started blindly fundraising with the goal of simply pulling in as much as possible.
At the time I was living in Banff and working as a ski patroller at Sunshine Village, and I immediately had a lot of support-in-spirit. But what happened next was simply awesome. The idea was proudly adopted at work, to the extent that mistakes normally punishable in beer fines could instead be paid out in donations to Wheels for Life. I walked door-to-door down the main street in Banff and just about every business I approached was as enthusiastically supportive. We hosted concerts, parties, silent auctions, gear swaps, and dodgeball tournaments in donated spaces with donated prizes. Somewhere along the way, CBC Radio Calgary picked up the story and gave me a live interview on their afternoon rush hour programming. By the end of the season I had raised just under ten thousand dollars, eventually found the perfect ambulance, and negotiated the price down to fit the exactfundraising balance. I then recruited a couple of dirtbag friends and hit the road. We lived in the back of that ambulance (which we named Mother Goose for the commanding sound of the air horn) for the 10,000km between Saskatoon and Guatemala, raising gas money as we went and indulging in the most incredible hospitality imaginable. When we arrived 2 months later at the Bombero station in Retalhuleu to hand over the keys, over a hundred volunteer rescue workers had turned up in their uniforms with their families to surprise us with a very unexpected and emotional ceremony, during which we were presented with Peace Ambassador awards from the Guatemalan government. We were then taken on a deafening parade of lights, sirens, and loudspeakers around the entire city, relegated to the roof on top display for the cheering crowds that were drawn into the streets by the crazy commotion. Embarrassing to say the least, but it ended up being in those moments of sincere gratitude for what we had done that the true meaning of the project ultimately declared itself.
The most terrifying part of the journey was very early on when donations started coming from people I didn’t know, because without the ability to refund them there was no turning back. A close second and third were being held at gunpoint in Mexico and Texas respectively (stories for another time), but by far the most daring escape was the time we used our emergency lights to clear a line through a large armed protest and road block that made the highway impassable to everybody else!
Lastly, what are some of your plans for the future post residency? Are there any new initiatives you are mulling over or eager to start?
Admittedly residency has kept my mind pretty reigned in and focused on the immediate demands of the program, but I know that more breathing room in the future will lead to more daydreaming, ideas, plans, and projects. One really interesting opportunity I see on the horizon is to get involved with the ongoing development of emergency medicine training in Iceland. As we speak, only family medicine and psychiatry residencies are established, and they are getting set to graduate their first ever home grown EM residents, an amazing accomplishment that speaks to a monumental vision and effort. I have always had ambitions to put my Canadian Royal College training towards international causes in emergency medicine, and this is an obvious and personally meaningful place to start. Exactly what that will look like is yet to be determined, but I will head over as a resident for some rotations in the coming months and start mapping out a path.
Not surprising to anyone that knows me is that wilderness medicine is also an area of significant interest, and one to which I hope to be able to make a significant contribution down the road. Details TBD!