Ask Ron Stewart about his startlingly interesting life and career and he replies with the kind of “aw shucks” stuff that you get from modest but successful people.
He’s been “lucky” he says. A lot of it was “just serendipity,” he goes on — all but looking down like a kid scuffing the toe of his sneaker in the dirt — perhaps because he has been “willing to take chances.”
Then Stewart tells you this story, that happened in 1978, when he was the founding head of the emergency medicine department at the University of Pittsburgh.
An old bridge was being prepared for demolition in the industrial centre. When the bridge shifted, an ironworker was trapped high atop it by a heavy girder.
As the rain fell Stewart climbed 40 metres up a fire ladder. There, swaying in the wind — as the television cameras rolled — he amputated the ironworker’s leg.
The whole process took three nerve-wracking hours. But the man lived. (He and Stewart are in touch to this day.)
Moreover, Stewart says the procedure “electrified the public to the importance of paramedics,” making it a big moment for a man who would become one of the pioneers of emergency medicine and paramedic systems across North America.
Thursday, in fact, the former Nova Scotia health minister spent the morning finishing off a symposium honouring the 20th anniversary of the provincial health services system, which he helped create.
Then he took a few minutes to sit down and talk about other things, including the $1.3-million of his own money that he has pledged for an annual symposium in emergency medical services research.
Stewart’s dough is also helping to fund a chair in emergency medical services research at Dalhousie University, where his affiliations run long and deep.
“At a certain point you start to think about what you are leaving behind,” says the lifelong bachelor.
He’s 75 now and almost died last year from a bone marrow infection.
It’s still funny to hear Stewart say that — this coal miner’s son from Sydney Mines who started out studying the classics at Acadia before going to med school at Dalhousie and beginning his medical practice in the shadow of Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
The way Stewart tells it, it was all timing that led him to be “one of the first in line” in the still-young field of emergency medicine.
Which I suppose means that it was serendipity that, at 29, he became a resident in emergency medicine at Los Angeles County Hospitals, where a wild-eyed fellow named Charles Manson was a regular patient.
Perhaps it was just good fortune, too, that landed him television gigs as a consultant on Emergency and Marcus Welby, M.D., his later somewhat weightier job running the University of Pittsburgh’s emergency medicine department — as well as his appointment by former U.S. president Bill Clinton to a study of health reform in the United States.
Eventually Stewart came home and, after concluding that the provincial health system was in urgent need of reform, agreed to stand for John Savage’s Liberals in Cape Breton.
Stewart’s tenure as health minister is often described as Quixotic, which truthfully could describe much of the Savage years.
But he did spearhead the provincial government’s decision to take control of all of the province’s ground ambulance operations, then consolidate them under one roof, Emergency Health Services.
Those were challenging years for Stewart, who hated the “self-centred” nature of politics, the posturing in the legislature and the theatrics of press scrums.
In keeping with his promise not to run for a second term, he eventually resigned from cabinet.
“It was a relief,” Stewart said of joining the Liberal back-benches.
There, for six months, he sat between Charlie MacArthur and Kenny MacAskill, two Gaelic-speaking MLAs from Cape Breton, before leaving politics forever.
It was “an honour to sit in that House,” he says.
It is an honour and a pleasure as well, to return to Dal’s medical school where, in one form or another, he has been ever since.
“If you weren’t rational you would believe that I am the saint of the Earth,” he said Thursday, when I asked him to sum up his career. “But I have just been the lead, the person who has gotten the credit or the blame.”
So now Stewart is doing his part to ensure that Nova Scotia continues to be a leader in emergency health care delivery far into the future.
Don’t worry: He’s not going anywhere just yet.
Stewart still runs in Point Pleasant Park. When he’s at his place on Boularderie Island he plays the pipe organ on Sunday morning at two different churches.
He’s got a new book on the go.
For the professor emeritus at Dal’s med school, there’s always a new crop of medical residents to teach.
“I should have been one of those guys with 10 kids, but that didn’t happen,” he says. “My family are really the medical students and the college.”