Royal Col­lege hon­ours trea­sured physi­cian

The Victoria Standard - - Health / Community - CAROLYN BAR­BER

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.

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