REGINA -- Ryan Meili arrived unexpectedly.

It was 1997 and Father Les Paquin was working at a Roman Catholic church mission in Brazil.

The stranger at his door was interested in medicine and wanted to see how health care in the country worked.

"From the moment that he turned up, I knew that Ryan was going to be somebody very, very special," says the retired priest.

Empathy and big-picture thinking come naturally to Meili, 45, a soft-spoken physician hoping to become Saskatchewan's next premier in the Oct. 26 election.

Meili says he wants to reverse the fortunes of the province's NDP against the long-governing Saskatchewan Party. His message is one of change and focuses on health care, education, child care and seniors.

"It's easy to get into, 'How many seats would be acceptable? What percentage of the vote would mean I could stick around?' he says.

"That's not what matters to me."

Jim Meili remembers his younger brother always believing in fairness.

Ryan Meili was the youngest of three boys raised on a farm south of Moose Jaw, Sask. As a kid, he liked learning from books and playing hockey. He would think before speaking.

"I remember him being conscious of a lot of things and worlds that maybe not a lot of other people paid attention to," says his brother.

When Meili was about 12, the family moved into Moose Jaw. Meili's mother worked as a director at a seniors home there, while the family still ran the farm.

Despite growing up far from much of anything, it didn't feel that way, his brother says.

The boys travelled the globe by flipping through pages of National Geographic magazines. "That just kind of formed our world view that we were part of a much bigger place than just small-town Saskatchewan," says the older Meili.

After high school and a few years at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Ryan Meili travelled around South America, where he met Paquin and accompanied the priest to visit the sick and dying in hospitals.

"Ryan and I went for a walk, and it was about a 22-kilometre walk between two cities. And in that talk he was musing on what he would do in the future. He had tried to get into medicine twice and had failed and he was contemplating a third time," Paquin says.

"I think after he rubbed shoulders and saw the suffering and the pain of so many people in South America, it really motivated him to try again."

Bill Albritton met Meili after that third try.

The former dean of the U of S college of medicine says he was approached by Meili and another medical student about starting a clinic in the inner city. Albritton was struck because other students were being warned by their parents to stay clear of the area.

Meili did start that clinic and later created another program at the university that sent medical students to Indigenous communities in northern Saskatchewan and around the world to Mozambique. Meili also travelled back and forth to the African country to work in the following years.

Albritton remembers Meili was well-liked by the faculty and especially connected with patients.

"His heart is in people," says Albritton. "He had a great deal of empathy … he cared about them as people, not just patients."

Meili has long balanced both medicine and politics.

He became a New Democrat in 2001, the same year he travelled to Quebec City as a university student and was arrested at protests surrounding the Summit of the Americas.

He started his career as a family doctor at a community clinic in Saskatoon's core neighbourhood treating HIV patients.

In 2009, he married Dr, Mahli Brindamour, a pediatrician, and also took a run at the NDP leadership -- but lost. He was defeated again in 2013.

During those years, he wrote a book called "A Healthy Society," which urged political leaders to focus more on the social determinants of health. He also founded an organization called Upstream, advocating for the cause.

He and his wife started a family. They have two sons: Augustin, 3, and Abraham, 9.

Meili won a legislature seat in a byelection for Saskatoon Meewasin in 2017. A year later, in yet another try, he was elected party leader.

Following in the footsteps of NDP political giants such as Tommy Douglas and Roy Romanow, Meili leads the party at a time when its storied history in the province is weakened. It's the official Opposition, but holds only 13 of 61 seats.

Meili has also never quit being a doctor.

He renewed his medical licence earlier this year so he could work at a COVID-19 testing centre. And his recent Friday mornings have been spent seeing patients at a homeless shelter.

That work will stop during the election campaign, Meili says.

"Hopefully, I will have no time to do it after."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2020