Woodstock doctor still on the job at 86

October 10, 2010

Story and photos by Geoff Dale

WOODSTOCK, ON – One might assume that 86-year-old Dr. Norman Edward Burt-Gerrans might want to step back momentarily and smell the roses, taking a breather from a career that has spanned more than half a century.

Yet retirement just doesn’t appear to be in the cards for the well-respected doctor, a recipient of a city of Woodstock’s Civic Award of Excellence For Distinction five years ago at the age of 81.

In fact, at least once a week the halls and offices of Woodstock General Hospital echo with the sounds of the P.A. calling him to report to the operating room to assist a colleague in his role as a surgical assistant.

Dr. Burt-Gerrans makes it abundantly clear why he’s still involved in medicine and not opting to join legions of other snowbirds deep-sea fishing off the coast of Florida or relaxing in a hammock, wiling away the hours in a cozy cottage setting in Northern Ontario.

“I’m still very interested in medicine, particularly the surgical side and the progress that has been made over the years,” he says. “And it’s just so nice to walk into the recovery room to see a patient getting better after an operation.

“It keeps you young. I love having a reason to get up every morning with a purpose. I know of no other profession I would ever want to be part because there is so much satisfaction to medicine, whether it’s greeting a new baby you just delivered (the last was in 1990) or talking with that patient who is on the mend.”

He’s also quick to point out that many of his colleagues, unlike much of the general populace, do not exit their profession at the age of 65 (that mandatory retirement age was struck down by the provincial government), due in large part to the expense of maintaining a practice.

“Income dictates when one retires,” he explains. “Some doctors do pack it in early but many stay on the job well into their 70s and beyond. We’re not millionaires like some seem to think. There are insurance costs, staff payments and expenses associated with your office.

“Besides, there is so much personal satisfaction to being a doctor.”

An army veteran of the Second World War, a Bachelor of Physical Education graduate and a high school teacher in St. Catherine’s, he was convinced to try his hand at medicine. So he spent seven years studying pre-med, distinguishing himself with a Governor General’s medal, and medicine before moving to Woodstock in 1958.

Seeing more than 2,000 regular patients and delivering in excess of 200 babies yearly, he continued in his practice until 1984 until high blood pressure forced him to take time out. While away, he nonetheless kept himself active in Orillia’s medical circles before returning back to Woodstock to set up another practice in 1989.

After closing that practice in 1994, he became a surgical assistant. At first it was five days a week. Gradually reducing that number, these days he can be found in the OR Tuesday mornings (changing to Thursday in the fall) and additional days when his skills are required.

“Essentially I help the surgeon see exactly what he’s doing, ensuring the job can be done in an efficient and timely manner,” he explains. “I could be holding an instrument or keeping something, like a body part, out of the way. It requires close attention because your eyes are always on the operation.

“Surgeons are all different in many ways but you can be assured if you’re having an operation in Woodstock you’re getting excellent treatment from superbly trained doctors.”

If being a regular fixture at the hospital wasn’t enough, Dr. Burt-Gerrans always finds other pursuits to keep him occupied, like his passion for woodworking, a love he acquired from his craftsman father at the age of five.

Busy in his well-equipped and up-to-date downstairs woodworking shop several hours a week, he has produced a wide range of well-crafted objects like oak and walnut clocks, lamps and mantlepiece objects that adorn his home and those of friends and former patients, some made as Christmas gifts.

Last year he built a six foot tall lighthouse with a 34-inch diameter base which has found a home in Tillsonburg, in the southern part of Oxford County.

“As a doctor you really need an a vocation,” he says. “It keeps you from thinking about the job all the time, worrying about a patient or other things. I love woodworking, particularly keeping on top of all the new tools that are available now. You can get an exact cut from a digital print-out.”

Dr. Burt-Gerrans points to a photo taken of him playing organ in 1978 in the St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.

An accomplished organist frequently exhibiting his musical talents at patients’ weddings until the age of 76, he also founded the city’s acclaimed Choralaires in January 1965. Dubbed Woodstock’s Ambassadors of Song, he traveled and performed throughout the world with the still active musical ensemble on numerous occasions.

“I got a lot of help from Dr. G. Allen Webb, an extremely gifted organist,” he adds. “You know doctors often make very good musicians.”

So now, a scant four years away from his 90th birthday, is he pleased with the choices he’s made and just how long does his plan on continuing at such an enviable rate?

“There is no question about the professional choice I made,” he says. “I would do it all over again, absolutely the same way. As for how long I’ll work, that depends on two things. First, do I think I can still do it and secondly, do my colleagues agree I am still helpful on the job?

“If the answer is yes to both questions, then I’ll be at it for some time to come, because I just love medicine.”

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