On a summer evening long ago, my young life dangled by a proverbial thread. I remember fragments of the episode: excruciating pain, fear in my parents’ eyes, Mom desperately attempting to comfort me, Dad hunched over the steering wheel, the soothing voice of a dark-haired doctor with a curious accent and a big dog, the biggest I’d ever met.
What’s wrong with this girl?
It’s hard to say how long I had been suffering discomfort in my abdomen on the lower right side. No doubt, Mom had administered some traditional remedies from her stash of non-prescription medicines. These included Rawleigh’s Pleasant Relief, Watkins Salve, Peroxide, Absorbine Junior, Sloan’s Liniment, Vicks VapoRub, Milk of Magnesia, Rawleigh’s Medicated Ointment and Buckley’s Cough Syrup. Grannie would follow up one of Mom’s treatments by pampering Shirley, Bobby, Arthur or me with tea and toast in her little house on the hill.
But on that summer evening, none of Mom’s remedies could relieve my agonizing pain. So, once the cows had been milked, the other evening farm chores completed and the rest of the family had eaten a light supper, my parents decided to seek professional medical treatment.
That was a momentous decision. Independent, hard-working, no-nonsense farmers, my parents were short on both time and money. We lived back in the foothills, 17 miles from the nearest town. Mom could have counted the times on one hand that she had taken any of us to see a doctor after we’d come home from the hospital as infants.
Welcome to Okotoks
So Mom and Dad loaded me up in the 1949 Chevy sedan and drove to Okotoks, the nearest town. At the service station that was about to close for the night, they asked for directions to the new doctors’ house.
On the hill overlooking the old part of town, Dad pulled to a stop in front of a home. When Dr. Morris Gibson opened his front door, Mom was holding me in her arms looking helpless (and Mom was very, very rarely helpless). Sizing up the situation, he reached out, opening his arms wide to take me.
“Come in,” he told my parents. “I have an examining table in the basement.” his wife, Janet, who also was a physician, followed us downstairs, as did their dog.
When he laid me on the table, Dr. Gibson told the big Collie, “Rough, we don’t need your help.” He could see, though, that the dog’s presence comforted me. After all, I was a farm kid and my closest pals were the family dogs.
Dr. Gibson’s examination didn’t take long.
“Elaine is suffering from acute appendicitis. I’ve got to get her to the hospital in High River right away and operate as soon as possible,” he told Mom and Dad. “I’ll take her with me and you follow my car.”
I’m sure that was a long 15-mile trip for all three of my caregivers.
Where am I?
I awoke the following day in a children’s ward in the High River Hospital. I was alone and in a very strange place with a peculiar smell. The excruciating pain in my side had been traded for a big incision in my flesh closed with stitches.
The nurses were kind, telling me that Dr. Gibson would be in to see me soon. They also said my parents would come during visiting hours in the afternoon. I overheard them saying that my appendix had burst while I was on the operating table, whatever that meant.
Time passed so slowly that I sometimes sobbed into my pillow. The older girls in the ward, who were recovering from tonsillectomies, called me a baby. Perhaps my emergency operation was generating a great deal more attention than their routine surgeries.
Then I came down with pneumonia.
Ten days later, I was well enough to be released from the hospital. I was flattered by the interest in my operation from our family and the neighbors. However, it wasn’t long before Mom forbid me from showing off my scar, saying something about it not being ladylike.
From that day forth, our family placed Dr. Gibson on a pedestal and he remained our family doctor for many, many years. We weren’t the only ones who put their faith in the couple.
Practicing side by side, the Gibsons worked hard and earned the respect and admiration of not only the townspeople, but also those living in the surrounding area.
What drove the doctors to immigrate?
“In the West our friends and patients were the sons and daughters of the original settlers – British, American and European – and the spirit of independence was very strong,” Dr. Gibson wrote in his book, “A Doctor’s Calling,” which also appeared in a Readers Digest Condensed Book.
Dr. Gibson and his family knew a thing or two about independence.
Drs. Morris and Janet Gibson had earned Bachelors of Medicine and Surgery at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. They were married in 1941 and their only child, Catriona, was born in 1943. In World War II, Dr. Morris Gibson was an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps and Dr. Janet Gibson served as house surgeon, physician and anesthetist in various hospitals.
After the war, the couple practiced in heavily bombed Hull in Yorkshire, England. After 10 years, however, Dr. Gibson could no longer contain his frustration with the limitations placed on his practice of medicine by the National Health Service. The family decided to immigrate to Canada. They had heard there was a shortage of doctors, especially in small towns.
The doctors, who were approaching middle age, chose Okotoks, located south of Calgary, Alberta. Dr. Janet Gibson decided it was bound to be all right because the unusual name had two OKs in it. The Canadian immigration authorities told the doctors that they would notify the town of the Gibsons’ intention to settle there.
“But when we arrived, we might have been creatures from outer space. Nobody had heard of us and, at first, nobody seemed very interested either,” Dr. Gibson wrote in his book, “A Doctor in the West.”
Perhaps the community at large was gauging whether the Gibsons intended to stay. Okotoks had not been able to keep a physician since Dr. A.E. Ardiel had died five years earlier. He brought my mother into the world in 1911.
Finally satisfied that the new doctors meant to stay, the leading citizens stepped up to assist the Gibsons. Housing was scarce, while office space was in even shorter supply. For a time, the doctors saw patients in their kitchen that was so cold in the winter that Catriona’s clothes froze to the wall of the closet in her room.
The town council provided a lot east of the Willingdon Hotel on Okotoks’ main street. Dr. Gibson heard of an old, grey, weather-beaten building in a field near town that was for sale for $500.
When he learned it had been the old Skye Glen schoolhouse, Dr. Gibson said it was a good omen; his father-in-law had been born on the Isle of Skye.
A dozen men donated their services to haul the wooden building into town and place it on a concrete foundation. Then the old building was renovated. The humble little structure had no windows on either side of the entrance when it was a school or later as a doctors’ office.
Dr. Gibson liked the people in the area. Some brought him little welcome presents such as butter, eggs or beef. If they didn’t have ready cash for a small service, they would leave a couple of dozen eggs or a dressed chicken at his office door. They called him Doc, which puzzled him until he realized it was a title of respect.
In 1956, the Gibsons built the first new house constructed in Okotoks in many years. From their vantage point on top of the hill, the doctors had an unobstructed view of the Rockies to the west. To the south, the Sheep River meandered through the little town they served.
“It was to be a happy, lively home for years to come. And it would also be witness to strange and sometimes sad events because with the closest hospital 15 miles away, people often arrived at our door in dire straits, desperate for help,” Doc wrote in another book, “A Doctor’s Calling.”
Caring for generations of the same family from the cradle to the grave, the Gibsons flourished in the foothills country and their patients responded to their skill and dedication. The Gibsons built relationships with specialists in Calgary and other family doctors in the region.
Dr. Janet served as president of both the local Red Cross and the parent-teacher association at the school. Doc served on the Foothills School Division Board for 10 years. They were co-founders of the Okotoks Horse Show.
An outstanding student, Catriona completed high school in Okotoks. She earned first a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alberta in Edmonton and later a law degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1969, Catriona’s promising life was cut short when she died in a car accident at the age of only 26.
It was a staggering blow for the Gibsons.
End of an era
The University of Calgary opened its medical school in 1969 and two years later, Doc agreed to lead its division of family medicine. However, he never forgot his 17 years as a country doctor in Okotoks, where a school is named in his honor.
Doc saw to it that all students shadowed a rural physician for a four-week period in the final year of their university medical training.
“We want students to be exposed to the kind of work and illnesses that the family doctor sees every day of his life,” Doc told a newspaper reporter.
Doc was determined to equip these young doctors with the courage, confidence and compassion needed to save lives like mine.
James Herriot, the British veterinarian and celebrated author of “Creatures Great and Small,” wrote the preface or endorsements for the books Doc wrote in retirement. Herriott called his old friend’s stories warm, funny and touching.
Dr. Morris Gibson’s memories reflect the spirit of an independent man who shared that trait with his patients and his adopted country.
In the spring of 2018, a surgeon was prepping me for laparoscopic gallbladder surgery.
“You have a large scar on your abdomen,” she said thoughtfully.
“Appendix,” I explained.
“It’s in the wrong place,” she replied, shaking her head.
“When I was a small child, a country doctor saved my life with an emergency appendectomy,” I said, adding, “It’s a long story…”
The surgeon studied me long and hard. Then she slid her stool over beside me and sat down, giving me her undivided attention. This she had to hear.
So tell me readers, has a certain doctor or medical team impacted your life or the life or someone you love? I’d love to hear your memory. Thank you for reading. Elaine