A physician’s identity

Dr. Fred Harrigan is pictured with his granddaughter, Amye Harrigan.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in Doctors Nova Scotia Magazine. Dr. Fred Harrigan passed away on March 9, 2016. His obituary is available here.

My dad, Fred Harrigan, is in his 88th year. He is dying. The loss of a parent is something that we all go through and, in coming to terms with my dad’s imminent death, I’ve been reflecting on his career and his remarkable commitment to his profession.

My dad is a general internist. He reluctantly retired when he was 74, but his identity as a doctor continues to be very important to him.

He began his career in a small New Brunswick community in a time before Medicare. He was not guaranteed any money (MSI did not exist and APPs or AFPs were not available then) and he had difficulty supporting our large family in the first few years of practice. He was paid in vegetables and venison or often not at all.

In addition to his office, he worked at a large regional hospital. Sixteen physicians staffed the entire facility, including surgery, paediatrics, 24/7 ER, medicine, obstetrics and radiology. Because they had no paediatricians and obstetricians when Dad arrived, he was made head of the department of paediatrics and obstetrics as well as a member of the department of medicine. He managed paediatric malignancies, delivered more than 1,000 babies and managed a very comprehensive general internal medicine practice. He worked 14-hour days, six days a week and was on-call one-in-three days for much of his 40-year career.

Dad loved every minute of it. Medicine was his life, his vocation. He devoted himself to patient care –often to the detriment of his own personal life. When I was growing up, he was often in bed when we left for school and we were all in bed when he came home. He was rarely home for supper and was used to eating a warmed dish from the oven (in the years before microwaves). Those who talk about him refer to him as a gentle man who had tremendous capacity as a listener.

He didn’t make a lot of money and, frankly, it was never about the money. He believed in kindness and respect and he instilled those values in all of us.

Now that he is ill, and the word is out, I have been struck by the outpouring of gratitude in the community. Even though it has been 14 years since he retired, physicians and nurses are visiting regularly and regaling all of us with stories of his practice. More startling to me are the patients who are visiting – patients and children of patients are coming to make one last visit to a man who they say routinely went above and beyond when providing care.

My dad represents the kind of physician I have aspired to be. I’m reminded of how important it is for us, as physicians, to remember why we chose this profession.‎ We should try to recapture some of the idealism that we felt when we decided to pursue our careers.

I know I will, in honour of my dad.