Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 43.
Dr. Geggie and Me
by Gerald Ian Pritchard
Today, my health care is provided by a variety of medical specialties—from neurology to urology, supported by skilled technicians using advanced diagnostic tools. When I was growing up on a farm near Alcove in the 1930s and ’40s, my health care was provided mostly by the one doctor in general practice then, H. J. G. Geggie, MD.
Harold James Gugy Geggie was born at Beauport, Quebec, in 1886 and graduated in medicine from McGill University more than a century ago. He first went to assist Dr. Hans Stevenson at Wakefield in the lower Gatineau Valley, planning to stay two years. He had no expectation the practice would become his, but this changed with Stevenson’s sudden death a few months later. After his decision to remain in Wakefield and later to marry the doctor’s daughter Ella (1887–1967), Dr. Geggie became a much-beloved friend and physician, and a respected father and husband, and he was long remembered for his community leadership.
Memories of this man and his work were enriched by his journal recording of events from time to time, which after his death in 1966 became the basis for a captivating book, The Extra Mile: Medicine in Rural Quebec 1885–1965, available from the Gatineau Valley Historical Society. Other anecdotes concerning him are long recounted, but few if any of his patients saw fit to set them in print. As one of hundreds he ushered into this world, here are my recollections. This record is an appreciative reflection of the rural health care we came to enjoy, and may it enhance awareness of the humaneness of this country doctor who for 55 years just did the very best he could with what he had.
My earliest memory of Dr. Geggie was an unannounced visit to our one-room schoolhouse at Alcove when I was probably eight or nine. He came with a little black bag from which he produced a glass syringe with needle, large by today’s standards, plus two bottles. From the first bottle he loaded the syringe. The other was used to sterilize the surface of the needle after each student’s vaccination. All of us had been previously vaccinated for protection against smallpox, but on this particular day we were being protected against diphtheria. As my older brother was having his turn the needle broke, so the doctor had to return the next day with another needle to finish his task.
Many families did not look far back to remember tragedies caused by diphtheria. My own aunt Anna died of it as a child. Any doctor alone in a rural area kept an eye on the community for infectious diseases such as typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis, but the deadly diphtheria was probably foremost in their mind. The sting of the needle was soon forgotten, and the memory of that vaccination did not resurface until after my 16th birthday, when there was another unannounced visit by the same doctor.
This time it was to the Wakefield high school, where Dr. Geggie simply took throat swabs from those students with sore throats and sent them off to a laboratory. My results came back positive for the organism causing diphtheria. Somehow I had become a carrier posing danger to others and was quickly sent off to quarantine. That vaccination years before likely had just saved my life. I felt fine, but that month of quarantine mucked up my senior school year. The time was spent sharing a cross-cut saw with my brother, cutting logs in the swamp. It was a great experience in learning to get along with each other.
I was born one cold November night in 1929 on Burnside Avenue, just down the street from Dr. Geggie’s residence on Riverside Drive. According to Mother, he had feared a potential problem and wanted her to be in Wakefield for the delivery, likely with one of his midwives. Both my sister and brother had been April babies, and Mother had been warned that if she persisted in having babies in times of muddy or snowy roads of spring or fall, she needed to be closer to him than the eight kilometres from our home. There had been a postpartum problem when my brother had been born, with Mother becoming bedridden; her legs were kept high on the boards from the dining room table, sloped over the foot of her bed. Waiting in Wakefield, she had enjoyed her time there, including her daily strolls up and down the avenue with another lady, whose son arrived 10 days later on the day we left for our own home. All had gone well, much to the relief of my father.
Obstetrics was Dr. Geggie’s favourite aspect of his practice. He always bathed newborns himself. I recall once getting a lift home from school with him. He was happily on his way to deliver the sixth in a family, still waiting to be paid for the first. Apparently he had a network of midwives. As mothers, they would each share details of their day’s work with family, upon returning home. These details were duly reported in the schoolyard next day.
My father was 48 years of age when diagnosed with a coronary thrombosis in 1935, when I was only five years old. He remained conscious for hours following the attack, before death occurred. He was known to have had a history of heart disease, but details I never knew beyond a valve problem. In sharp contrast to today, little could be done other than move him to a bedroom. There was no nearby hospital or ambulance service. Dr. Geggie came and stayed, except for one visit to another critically ill man. A nurse on vacation from New York City was brought in, and relatives came. The quietness demanded of me as a child was an awful silence.
Dr. Geggie and my father were close in age, and he always kept a special interest in the young family his friend was leaving behind. We were in the depth of the Great Depression, and there were no easy options. Mother kept the home together, sustaining both the farmstead and family until after the Second World War. She was a stoic woman, and I remained forever grateful to those who helped her along.
For the most part, residents of the countryside were quite self-reliant, and mental illnesses never talked about. Calling the doctor was a last resort. Nevertheless, house calls were the norm, and doctors making them had a much better understanding of conditions existing within a household than is possible today. Likewise, elective surgery tended to be avoided. Hospitalization was not available locally until later years, and most cuts and lacerations were handled at the doctor’s office. However, when surgery did become necessary, it became a complicated ordeal.
My first experience with hospitalization and surgery came at the age of 10 with a tonsillectomy. Performed commonly at that time, with children of that age it is still considered a serious procedure. As the summer vacation was approaching, word was received that an arrangement was being made for a group of children in the district to have the surgery. I was taken for the pre-test and included in by Dr. Geggie. The day before the operation I was taken to a hospital facility on Rideau Street in Ottawa, and placed in a private room. Mother was told to leave. I had come a day in advance for a so-called surgical preparation. This consisted for the most part in ensuring no food intake, and also the indignity of a colonic enema. Early next morning I was moved into the operating room and placed on an operating table with its large bank of lights in the ceiling. Nurses stood waiting. My procedure was the first of the day. A man arrived, then someone said, “Good morning, Doctor,” and I passed out.
When my mother came for me the next day and attempted to settle my account, there was a kerfuffle. She was told for the first time there was no need, as I was included with the charitable cases. She would have none of it. I never did learn if she did pay. No doubt others didn’t. In any case, we were soon on our way. In later years Mother had major abdominal surgery. As happened too frequently with country folk, a prime piece of family land was sold to pay a medical bill of a few hundred dollars.
Mother insisted I wear short pants to school in spite of my protests. In 1941 I got into the poison ivy. Weather cooled before the skin cleared up, with the result that an infection occurred when my legs were covered. This led to a massive number of nasty boils on both legs. Prescribed treatment was soaking in Epsom salts to draw out the toxin. Healing was slow, and even after the legs improved, other boils would occur if a skin break occurred. Later in the winter I developed a patch of ringworm on my head, a nasty skin infection caused by a fungus common in cattle wintered in barns. This necessitated a visit to Dr. Geggie’s office in Wakefield. There, treatment was fast and simple, yet memorable.
Dr. Geggie just took a firm head grip, poured iodine generously onto my sores, and rubbed the scabs aggressively to ensure penetration. Another patient, with a mangled hand, was also waiting in the doctor’s office that served as treatment room. The sedation needed to work before the doctor could stitch him up. I may have felt sick, but all I remember was the other patient lifting his bloody hand and pointing out that the kid was going to faint.
My follow-up consultation took quite a different setting. Walking home alone from school one afternoon I heard first a noise, then over the crest of the hill came a red snowmobile. Stopping, Dr. Geggie stepped out, lifted my cap and bandage and expressed satisfaction with what he saw. It was then back into his seat, as the propeller sped up and he was gone. The 1939 Bombardier snowmobile was a cab set on four skis like a bobsled that was pushed along by a high-hung Ford motor driving a propeller from the rear.
Wakefield school was part of the Protestant school system in the province of Quebec. The busiest man in town, Dr. Geggie, was long-time chairman of the local school board. It had opened a new building in 1941 high on a hill, creating water and sewer problems that took much of the Board’s attention. Staffing was also a nightmare. When I reported to start my second year of high school, a teacher had failed to show up. As chairman, Dr. Geggie spent much of the next week trying to find her. When finally she did arrive, with a new diamond ring, and was asked why the tardiness, she had replied with a sob that her grandmother was ill and that she only had one grandmother. Dr. Geggie curtly replied that most of us had two. She was the best teacher I ever had, and the Board was not about to lose her.
Soon after the new school opened, the boys came up with a novel prank in the men’s washroom. Reaching up and swinging the incoming water pipe to the urinals, away from the storage tank, ensured the next customer of a surprised shower of water as the valves opened. It was then easy to swing the pipe back into place and forget until another day. This prank went on for years. In time we got a new principal who took her authority rather seriously. When the janitor reported vandalism in the washroom, she rushed to make a site inspection and evaluate the magnitude of the newest crisis. No culprit could be found, and there was nothing in the rulebook to say whether classes must be cancelled if urinals didn’t work. Next came the panic call to the chairman of the board. The last I remember was a stern lecture to the boys from Dr. Geggie, who was far from being amused.
I recall Dr. Geggie telling me that he preferred to eat apples. Oranges and peaches were fine if someone else peeled them for him. He never had the time. Still, he took the time to write me a pleasant letter wishing me well when I took off for Macdonald College of McGill University. Soon after returning to the college for a second year, I sustained serious head injuries from a collapsing light pole. Regaining consciousness well into the next day, I found myself at the renowned Montreal Neurological Institute.
The hospital had already made an urgent call for my mother to come. The college dean hadn’t even bothered to tell her. Appropriate procedures of the day were followed, including being bedridden for 10 days or more. When the Institute discharged me, I was told to go home for a couple of weeks, stay busy, and then make further visits to the Institute as an outpatient.
Dr. Geggie had reservations about me returning so soon to college, but acknowledged the need to keep the appointments at the Institute. After the month’s absence and attempting to salvage something, my grades slipped. Summoned to a cubbyhole in the chemistry department and told I did not belong in a university, I was then kicked out of the college. Being a Gold Medalist from McGill University himself, Dr. Geggie was appalled at the behaviour of such a distinguished institution. Unbeknownst to me, he made a special trip of almost 200 kilometres to pay a visit to the dean. One can only guess what was said, but I was then invited to return and complete my degree.
I last saw Doctor H. J. G. Geggie in 1959. His three sons (Hans, David and Stuart) all had become physicians and were now picking up the calls, whereas he only made rounds each morning at the hospital in Wakefield that he had fought so hard to establish. My mother was quite ill at the time, and I had agreed to sit with her throughout the night. A somewhat different-than-usual pain was being experienced, and she had anxiety as to what it all might mean. One of the doctor’s sons was giving her excellent care, but she still felt a need to just see “The Old Man.” Somehow we learned that he did not go out at night, but he would gladly see her if someone picked him up. The 75-year-old Doctor was at the door when I arrived at his home.
When he saw Mother he was at his best—compassionate, calm and even reassuring. Before he left, he set out a syringe and morphine to use should the pain worsen during the night. As the hours passed she rallied, the discomfort lessened and the morphine was never used. She recouped and lived another year.
Mother always hoped that I might become a doctor—a medical one, of course— but this never was in the cards. I had opted for science and could by then also be addressed as “Doctor.” Yet it still made her proud. My drive back to Wakefield with Dr. Geggie that evening was warm and chatty, although I don’t remember much we talked about. I think he was also quite pleased with the occasion.
Most important in my long association with the good Dr. Geggie was in the picking up on his ethos. To him, every human life was precious, with each and every individual having a high purpose.