Longtime doctor hangs up coat
After a career in the medical field spanning more than six decades, including 48 of those years spent in Fort Frances, Dr. Brian Johnstone has retired at the age of 90.
“I enjoy what I do, which is why I’ve done it for as long as I have,” he told a packed room during a retirement dinner Friday night at La Place Rendez-Vous.
Dr. Johnstone was born in 1924 in Mount Gambier, South Australia and he lived “Down Under” until the late 1930s.
He said his parents were journalists who wanted to go to “Fleet Street,” which was, at that time, the journalistic centre of the world, so the family moved to England.
After finishing school there, he joined the air force during the Second World War and flew as a pilot from 1941-46.
Then he went back to medical school, where he met his wife, Audrey. The couple was married on July 24, 1948 in England as students.
After their residencies, they went into practice in the Midlands, near Birmingham, until 1966, when they made the decision to relocate.
“I didn’t like some of the things that were happening in the National Health Service,” Dr. Johnstone recalled.
“It was bureaucratic and it drove me crazy.”
They chose to move to North America, instead of Australia, so it would be easier for his wife to visit her two sisters who remained in England.
But Dr. Johnstone knew he didn’t want to practice medicine in the U.S. because the system is so different, so Canada was the obvious choice.
“I came and visited Fort Frances,” he recalled. “I liked the people here. I liked the lake. I liked the fact that I could fly very easily.
“Altogether it seemed ideal, so we came here.”
Dr. Johnstone admitted he never anticipated working until he was 90, and in fact had planned to retire 25 years ago.
But his wife took ill—and while she made an excellent recovery, they decided it wasn’t the time to do the travelling that had been planning, so he continued to work.
“We were pretty happy here,” Dr. Johnstone remarked, noting his wife passed away peacefully in 2009.
Then Fort Frances started to become short on physicians, so he kept on working.
Within the past year, though, two new physicians had come on board and upon reaching age 90, Dr. Johnstone was ready to retire.
“I thought it was time I packed it in,” he remarked.
“I feel comfortable now that they have enough people to make the place work and they don’t need me anymore.
“[But] I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Dr. Johnstone stressed, referring to his long medical career.
“If you’re going to spend your life doing something, I’d rather spend it doing that than being at a bank,” he chuckled.
“There are many other jobs I’d like to do less because I don’t think at the end of the day you go home feeling as though you’ve done anything.
“Most days you go home from medicine feeling you didn’t do anything particularly wonderful that day
“But occasionally you hit a really good day and feel pretty good about yourself,” he added, noting he went into medicine because it was challenging and interesting.
Dr. Johnstone recalled the hospital being “behind the times” in terms of equipment when the couple arrived here, but said the local Red Cross and others were good about raising funds.
“[They] got us a lot of equipment over the years,” he remarked, noting they didn’t have ventilators for the anesthetics, any form of cardiac monitoring, or an ICU.
“We got ourselves equipped up to very good standards.”
Dr. Johnstone said he’s seen a tremendous amount of changes over the years, citing that many drugs that come and go.
But it is the investigation within medicine that he said has made the biggest strides, referring to such techniques as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
“You can find out what’s wrong with people to a much greater extent than you could before,” he explained.
“It is possible to run at a much higher standard, particularly with early diagnosis.
“It’s not perfect yet and never will be,” he stressed. “[But] they are moving in the right direction.
“There are treatments coming up, 15-20 years down the line, that will do things that are unthought of now,” he added.
Dr. Johnstone also indicated part of what he liked about being a physician was meeting interesting people.
And people, including fellow physicians and nurses, particularly are going to miss him around the clinic and hospital.
Retired Dr. Jas Spencer called Dr. Johnstone a “hero,” speaking about his time in the war.
He also recalled a story where Dr. Johnstone taught him to be more humble and he spoke about his range of skills, such as being a pediatric anesthetist.
“For years, he was the anesthetist of choice for children,” Dr. Spencer said. “He would never turn down a case. . . .
“Brian was always available—just incredible—all hours of the day and night.
“Thank you ever so much for being a solid colleague and I wish you a very happy retirement,” he said to Dr. Johnstone.
Meanwhile, retired Dr. Angus Mackintosh spoke about the hospitality he and his wife received from the Johnstones when they arrived here and about how he delivered two—almost three—of his children.
“Fort Frances owes you a debt that can never be repaid greatly,” he remarked.
“His commitment and dedication to this area has been absolutely outstanding,” echoed Allan Katz, president and CEO of Riverside Health Care Facilities, Inc.
“The likes of him we’ll never see again.”
“It’s been a privilege to have worked alongside such a dedicated colleague for the past many years,” voiced Dr. Lorena Jenks.
“Brian is one of those people who just do their work without complaint and who are ready to help now matter what time of the day or night. . . .
“Brian loved his profession and continued to strive to stay current, and revelled in the weird and wonderful, which makes medicine such a great career,” she added.
“You’ve been an inspiration to all of us,” she said to Dr. Johnstone.
Dr. Robert Nugent, meanwhile, presented a humorous take on Dr. Johnstone’s career—highlighting his dislike of computers and his sometimes “colourful” language.
Thoughts also were offered by Dr. Johnstone’s friend and neighbour, Bruce Holmlund, from a couple, and a letter from Larry Eustace read aloud.
Having officially retired on Dec. 31, Dr. Johnstone already has been spending time in Florida due to the bitterly cold winter Northwestern Ontario has been experiencing this year.
He returned to Fort Frances for his retirement dinner and headed back to the “sunshine state” on Sunday.
“I like to play golf,” he noted, noting he’s never really had enough time to do that and plans to spend much of his retirement years on the course.
“I’m happy we came here,” Dr. Johnstone enthused. “I’m a small-town boy . . . I’ve always liked small towns.”