Royal College honours treasured physician
Thirty-four years ago, William (“Bill”) Fitzgerald was putting a tarp over the family’s beloved sailboat, “Tosca” in his home of St. Anthony, NL when a gust of wind yanked the ladder out beneath him. He came down head first, sacrificing both wrists to break his fall.
He spent two weeks in aboveelbow casts, followed by three more weeks in below-elbow casts, all the while worried that his career might be over.
“It’s a very inconvenient injury for a surgeon,” said Fitzgerald, matter-of-factly, during an interview this past May. Now retired, he lives in St. Ann’s Bay with his “closest advisor and most honest critic”, wife and colleague Dr. Trudy O’keefe.
The career loss would have been a tragedy - for Fitzgerald, for the countless patients he served in northern Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec, and the countless physicians he trained at the Charles Curtis Memorial Hospital in St. Anthony during his 38-year career. Three months ago, he received the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada 2018 James H. Graham Award of Merit for service to his profession and his community.
Fitzgerald recovered from the badly broken wrists, in part, by taking up the violin. He set off to Simpsons department store for a cheap one and began “scratching” as he puts it. When people learned he was teaching himself the violin, they asked if he would teach their kids. He helped one his young protégés achieve 86 percent on the conservatory exam.
By then, Fitzgerald was used to seeing his students succeed. Medical students came from all over the world to St. Anthony to watch how he cared for patients. In fact, he was awarded the Order of Canada in 2007 for his reputation as “the patient’s doctor”.
“The most important thing you can give your patient is your undivided attention. Typically, if I’m seeing a patient for the first time, my opening line is, ‘Tell me you story in your own words.’ And then I sit down, and I shut up and let them speak.”
“I am a general surgeon, but I’m also a generalist. I define that as considering the patient in the context of their family and the community they live in - their circumstances, what kind of job they have. Although the surgical problem may be fairly obvious and minor, there are other issues impinging on that individual’s life that clearly need addressing, whether they recognize it or not.”
Bright-eyed medical students came to St. Anthony to not only observe his bedside manner, but also his “technical wizardry” in the operating room. Fitzgerald sympathizes with today’s medical students who are pressed to commit to a career path by their second year. He says in the 1980s, many young visiting doctors did not know what they wanted to do, many wished to go off and save the world through medical missionary work.
“In order to do that, they needed to be able to open and close a belly safely and deal with whatever they found. So, they spent a year with us in St. Anthony and they got a pretty good shot at surgical skills and general medical stuff.”
Fitzgerald took advantage of Curtis Memorial Hospital’s generous sabbatical program to expand his own scope of practice. With family in tow, he travelled one year to Montreal to master ear surgeries. In 1986, they spent the year in Sokoto, Nigeria where he and O’keefe mentored aspiring physicians.
Just as his patients’ health was influenced by external forces, one has to wonder whether Fitzgerald’s lifelong encounters with technically astute mentors helped shape his success as a physician.
“I still remember my first day in the hospital in St. Anthony as a student. I’m wearing my white coat and being shown around. This guy in the X-ray department said, ‘Hey, come here, I want you to inject an IVP.’”
The man was Junior Mesher, the hospital’s “Mr. Fixit”. Mesher would also assist with anesthetics and run the bypass machines for the hospital’s chief surgeon, time Dr. Gordon Thomas.
“Because Mesher was not a physician, he was not allowed to inject the dye for a kidney x-ray. But because I had a white coat, I must be a doctor. I’m not even sure I knew what an IVP was, or how many IV injections I had given. You could probably count on one finger.”
The injection went well, and the experience became emblematic of Fitzgerald’s career – one full of high stakes, both academically and technically demanding, relying on raw ingenuity in the face of limited resources.
According to Fitzgerald, it was Gordon Thomas (once a student of the hospital’s namesake) who taught him everything he knows.
“He taught me a vast array of surgery. He was technically an old school, kind of, very rapid surgeon. He would do head, neck, abdomen, whatever came along. I learned from him that in that setting, with adequate training, you could do almost anything. He was one of those individuals that was phased by nothing. He would take on major cases and set a very high standard in technical and ward care.”
In retirement, Fitzgerald puts his generalist expertise to use serving on the Royal College's Indigenous Health Advisory Committee. The committee raises awareness amongst physicians in training and physicians in practice of how to respectfully interface with Indigenous people and consider the social and environmental determinants of health.
Beyond this volunteer role, Fitzgerald is carrying on in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and great uncle who were all master craftsmen in their own right. The morning of the interview, he had just finished a marriage stool, fixed his daughter’s swivel chair and made some children’s toys.
He is also enjoying reading a book without the phone ringing. And, now there is more time to sail “Tosca” - still part of the family after all these years.
Dr. William (“Bill”) Fitzgerald with students at the Charles Curtis Memorial Hospital in St. Anthony, NL where he served as clinical professor of surgery and chief of surgery.