THE FIGHTING DOCTOR WHO LIVES FOR CHILDREN
Crippled children, Thalidomide children, hungry children, children scarred by napalm in Vietnam - they’re all the concern of Gustave Gingras, a doctor, a fighter who becomes “almost a con man” when he’s campaigning for kids
DR. GUSTAVE GINGRAS is a man of medium height and portly physique, with quick brown eyes, a booming laugh and the kind of out-going charm, polished but not unctuous, that seems to be the special forte of French Canadians. A pleasant fellow, you say on meeting him; interesting, certainly intelligent, but not especially impressive; not the kind of man, for instance, to make the Canadian government reverse itself on a policy decision. And yet, that is exactly what he did, and because he did it, 15 Vietnamese girls are studying physiotherapy in Montreal today and, half a world away, a team of Canadian doctors are treating the victims of war and disease in a South Vietnam reha-
bilitation centre that our government thought could never be built.
Gingras has other accomplishments to his credit. He is Executive Director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Montreal, President of the Quebec College of Physicians and Surgeons, the first Canadian to serve as President of the International Federation of Physical Medicine; he is a Fellow of half a dozen medical societies and a member of more than two score medical and scientific groups from Italy to Venezuela; he has won enough honors, citations and medals to topple a man of lesser girth flat on his face, and he even wins awards for his hobby — building Meccano toys (second prize in the Commonwealth for a fire-fight-
“Once they stoned the handicapped child. That’s past. But there’s still a stigma”
ing ship, third prize for a scale-model caboose). But none of these official honors tastes half so sweet to the doctor as his never-to-be-acknowledged victory over the sluggish bureaucrats at Ottawa on behalf of the people of Vietnam.
To understand what he did, and how, and why, it is necessary to know something of Gingras, a man famous enough in international medical circles, but almost unknown in his own country. (A colleague of his told me, “I toured the Scandinavian countries, Turkey, Finland and India, and everywhere I went people wanted to know if I knew Dr. Gingras, and what he was like; then I went to a meeting in Toronto and it seemed nobody had heard of him.”)
Properly, Gingras belongs in the pages of a novel by, say, Thomas Wolfe; he is one of those larger-thanlife people of enormous energy, toughness and wit. Even his contradictions are huge; he is a French Canadian, and an Anglophile whose life-idol is Winston Churchill; he is a tough and sometimes ruthless administrator who remembers to bring little gifts for the staff from his trips abroad; he is a compassionate and loving man who can communicate almost instantly with the hundreds of children who come under his care, but has no children of his own, and doesn’t seem to miss them. “I don’t know if I could have got so much done with a family to worry about,” he says.
Professor Neil Compton, chairman of the Department of English at Sir George Williams University, and a former Gingras patient (he was stricken with paralytic polio in 1955), thinks of the doctor “not so much as a man as an energy, a kind of elemental force.”
Gingras was born in Montreal 51 years ago, the second son of a federal civil servant. He attended college at Rigaud, Quebec, and dreamed of becoming an actor — he once played the lead in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme — but his parents persuaded him that acting was a chancy and poor-paying career and enrolled him in the medical school at the University of Montreal. There, Dr. Eugène Robillard told me, “He was not a good student. He was restless and critical and could be embarrassing. It was only later, after the army, that he developed the fantastic sense of responsibility he has today.”
On graduation in 1943, he joined the Medical Corps and was posted to Basingstoke Hospital in England, where he worked with war-wounded soldiers and developed an enormous admiration for most things English. “I like the way they do things,” he told me. “At an international meeting the Latins do all the talking, and then the British pass the motions.” He still imports his shoes from England, hangs a portrait of Winston Churchill in his office — next to one of Pierre Trudeau, whom he also admires — and some of his close friends expect him to retire to the British Isles. It was in the army and in England that Gingras picked up the sense of order that is perhaps his dominant characteristic. He likes his life planned weeks, months, even years in advance; when he is preparing for an important meeting, he plots every move; when he is about to go before a government or medical official to ask for something, he has a secretary or colleague come in to act out the official’s role and raise every possible objection, so that Gingras cannot be caught off guard in the real interview.
At war’s end, he returned to Canada, where he hoped to study neurosurgery under Dr. Wilder Penfield, but Penfield, hearing of his work with wounded soldiers, asked him to fill in, temporarily, at the veterans’ hospital in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, outside Montreal. That “temporary” job led to his life work in rehabilitation and, incidentally, to his marriage to a nurse, the former Rena MacLean. “She used to work for me,” Gingras likes to tell people. “Now I work for her.”
Gradually, he became fascinated with the process of transforming a crippled, hurt and often dispirited human being into a useful, functioning and adjusted member of society. “There was a time when people used to throw stones at a child in braces,” he explains. “Now that has past, but there is still a sort of stigma ... You not only have to get society to accept the handicapped person, you have to get him to accept himself.”
His tactics toward that end are often brutally direct. One day a paraplegic soldier, a former pianist who had been crippled in an explosion and later sagged into a depressed, near - suicidal state, was brought to Gingras. “What do you want to do?” he asked the soldier.
“Oh, I don’t know,” the man re-
plied. “I haven’t really thought about it. Perhaps I could become a notary.”
“Right,” said Gingras, picked up the phone, and began barking orders. Before he knew what happened, the soldier found himself enrolled in the McGill Law School, with teams of veterans laid on to take him to and from every class. Today, he is a notary in Montreal.
In 1949 the Rotary Club asked Gingras to found what has become the Rehabilitation Institute of Montreal, which opened in the converted poolroom of an ancient hotel, with a staff of three and Gingras as a part-time consultant. Later, the institute moved to one floor of an office building in downtown Montreal, with Gingras as full-time director. One day, there was an electrical breakdown in the building, and he wondered how his secretary, Mrs. Helen Lippay, a charming and cheerfully efficient woman who had been his first civilian patient, would get to work. Mrs. Lippay’s legs had been paralyzed in an accident and she couldn’t possibly walk up the five floors to the office. Nevertheless, she arrived on time, as Gingras mentioned to a colleague. But he never troubled to find out just how she had done it. “I never asked her,” he told the colleague. “It was her job to be on time, and she was.”
Working long hours in cramped quarters with outdated equipment, Gingras nonetheless began to make such a mark in rehabilitation that, in 1953, the United Nations asked him to organize a centre in Venezuela, the first of a series of international advisory missions that have taken him to a score of nations around the world. In Venezuela, he was able to persuade the government to set up a modern, well-equipped centre complete with a school — named after Gingras — to provide trained staff. Leo Dallain, administrative director of the Rehabilitation Institute since 1951, notes, “Gingras could get money for other people in other countries while his own province wouldn’t give him a dime.”
At that time, the Montreal Institute was so strapped for funds that when it simply had to move to larger quarters, the best it could afford was the barren basement of a convalescent hospital.
Gingras’ reputation as an organizer and expediter continued to grow and when, in 1959, nearly 10,000 Moroc-
cans became paralyzed after eating food cooked in adulterated oil, he was summoned by the Red Cross to head an 11-nation rescue mission. “Watching him work was like watching a comet,” says one doctor who was with him in Morocco. “All you could see was a fiery trail.”
Gingras returned to Montreal to throw himself into another project — providing new quarters for the Rehabilitation Institute. A new site had been obtained in northwest Montreal in 1958 and now building was begun, on faith and credit. Work on the $2.5million centre was stopped several times when funds ran out and contractors quit, but in 1962 the money was raised and the doors opened on a 102bed rehabilitation hospital, one of the best-equipped in North America. Gingras took Quebec Premier Jean Lesage on a tour of the building, and Lesage noted the stair railings were a brilliant.
Liberal red. “Good thinking,” he said, patting the railing.
“Yes,” Gingras replied smoothly. “And we have a blue set in storage, just in case.”
The institute opened just in time for the Thalidomide tragedy, which saw nearly 100 Canadian babies born with seal-like limbs. Montreal became responsible for 34 Thalidomide babies in Quebec and the Maritimes and, under the direction of Dr. Maurice Mongeau, the Institute’s chief of physical medicine, the long, complex, often heart-breaking job of coping with both parents and children was begun. The parents had to be persuaded to keep their children in many cases; some parents saw their offspring as monsters or hopeless cripples who could only be shut up in institutions. “If every child needs a home,” said Gingras, “why not a Thalidomide child?” continued
Would Canada aid Vietnam children? No, said Ottawa. Yes, said Gingras. He won
With three exceptions, who were placed in foster homes, the handicapped babies remained with their parents and came to the centre as outpatients. They were, and are, treated as normally as possible. When they started school last fall, each Thalidomide child was taken to the front of the class by a nurse or caseworker, his shirt removed, the shrunken limbs displayed, and the automatic devices that operate his artificial limbs explained. The children have become almost celebrities in their schools.
“You have to be absolutely honest about such things,” says Gingras. “These children may live 70 or 80 years; you cannot hide them away; they cannot hide themselves, so you bring everything out into the open and some of your problems disappear.”
Among the devices put to work for the Thalidomide victims was an artificial arm developed in Russia. Gingras heard of the arm — more serviceable and flexible than current models — through a colleague, and flew to Moscow to bargain for the patent rights. He bought them for $30,000, got the money from the Quebec government, and the Northern Electric Company offered to make improvements that have given Canada one of the most efficient artficial limbs in the world.
In 1965, when work on this was well under way, Gingras got a call from Ottawa: Canada had been asked to start a rehabilitation program by South Vietnam; would Gingras take on the job? Of course he would. On September 28, 1965, he flew to Saigon and what he found there saddened and angered him. “I saw wards and wards of children with an arm gone, a leg gone, terrible, terrible scars across the face from burns ... I saw hundreds of children and I don’t remember seeing one of them smile.”
He hurled himself at his task, located a building, obtained government clearances, checked supplies. To save time, he dictated notes and orders as he walked and worked each day, mailed the tapes home every night and his Montreal staff began the mammoth organization job long before he left Vietnam. He arrived back in Canada on October 14, 1965, drew up a detailed report, complete to such items as an insurance scheme for volunteer workers, then flew to Ottawa to deliver the report in person. The gov-
ernment official he had an appointment with was too busy to see him; an underling told him nothing except, “Don’t talk to the press,” and received the report. Gingras returned to Montreal and began rounding up volunteers while he awaited government approval of the project.
It never came. The Vietnamese government, apparently fearful of the propaganda fallout from a children’s centre, with inevitable pictures of war-mutilated babies, began to stall. The Canadian government refused to press for action, or even to ask why Saigon had turned cool to the project. Gingras’ phone calls and letters were turned aside with bland replies and even a personal visit to then External Affairs Minister Paul Martin brought no action. Britain, the U.S. and Sweden all mounted rehabilitation schemes in Vietnam; Canada did not.
On December 16, 1966, 14 months after Gingras had rushed home with his report, Martin told reporters in Paris that the project was off. The reason finally passed to Gingras by a civil servant was that Canada and Vietnam could not agree on who should pay for such facilities as electricity for the centre. “My God,” snorted Gingras, “here is a house on fire and a man is trying to get his kids out and up comes the milkman and says, ‘Hey, you owe me for last Tuesday.’ ”
In the House of Commons, Martin said there was no question of the centre being reconsidered, but Gingras refused to accept the verdict. “This meant I had failed,” he told me, “and I am not accustomed to fail.”
He decided to ignore the only firm word he had ever received from the government — “Don’t talk to the press” — and began to tell friends, colleagues and newsmen what had happened. Soon, the federal government was under heavy fire: in Toronto, housewives formed a citizens’ committee; in Ottawa, the External Affairs office was bombarded with letters and phone calls; in Montreal, Gingras received offers for more medical volunteers than he could use.
The government reconsidered. The rehabilitation project, a closed subject in January 1967, became an open one in April. An External Aid official flew to Saigon; diplomatic pressure, polite but insistent, was brought to bear; a six-man team headed by another Montreal doctor, Michel Dupuis,
was dispatched to draw up a new report. Saigon eventually agreed to accept a rehabilitation centre for people of all ages and, to avoid any squabble about who should pay for what, Canada agreed to build it from scratch at Quinonh, 250 miles north of Saigon.
That centre, a $ 1.2-million structure capable of treating 50 bed patients and 100 out-patients, was due to open last December, but ran into yet one more delay of several weeks because equipment for making artificial limbs was unaccountably forgotten on a San Francisco dock and had to be air-freighted, late, to Vietnam. The official opening is scheduled for May. Meanwhile, a team of Canadian volunteers is treating warand diseaseravaged Vietnamese. Gingras, who as project director will oversee the centre from Canada, is satisfied.
As part of the program 20 Vietnamese, including 15 girls between the ages of 18 ánd 33, have been brought to Canada to study rehabilitation at the Montreal Institute. The girls, petite and pretty, work all day, most evenings and many weekends, trying to cram a three-year course in physiotherapy into 12 months. “We have to work hard,” says Dran Trung, 26, who used to translate training films for the U.S. Army. “Too many people have done too much for us to let them down.”
Gingras has gone on to other projects, revamping the Quebec College of Physicians and Surgeons, advising on rehabilitation in Africa, Australia and the West Indies, planning an expansion of the Montreal Institute and filling his normal functions as director, teacher and physician.
Despite this busy and successful round, even Gingras becomes discouraged from time to time. Once, sitting in the den of his comfortable Mount Royal home, he told me, “I used to be a pretty fair physician, but now I’m just a con man.” He was referring to his work as a spokesman and publicist for rehabilitation, which plays havoc with his medical career, but this rare self-deprecation is wide of the mark. As the neurosurgeon he once wanted to be, he could certainly have made more money — he draws $20,000 annually from the institute, plus fees from other sources as a consultant — but few doctors have done as much with their hands as Gingras has done with his brain and his tongue, his pride and his courage. □