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Tommy’s leg

This week our columnist Rob Brown talks about how a kid named Tommy helped out his buddies, Mike and Steve

While out playing with his pals, Tommy, a young Scottish boy of five, fell and injured his right knee. At first his dad, Thomas, an iron moulder working in Falkirk, and his mother, Anne, weren’t  alarmed. Nothing was broken, after all.  Tommy was admonished and told to take more care when rough housing with his mates. Time passed. The wound refused to heal. Anne suspected that Tommy’s leg was infected whereupon she and Thomas took the wee lad to the hospital.

After a careful examination, the doctor told Anne and Thomas their son had osteomyelitis. Bacteria has gotten into the wound and infected the bone marrow, he explained. The lad will need an operation.

As it turned out, young Tommy needed two operations, the cost of which put a severe strain on his father’s salary and depleted the family’s savings. Still, with Tommy recovered and a bit of money saved, Thomas decided they would emigrate to Canada, something he had long planned to do after hearing the country was full of opportunity.

They settled in Winnipeg. It was 1910. For a short time things looked promising, but bacterial infections are stubborn things. Tommy’s leg began aching again. The osteomyelitis was back, said the doctors, and it appeared that Tommy’s right leg would have to be amputated.

As luck would have it, Tommy’s plight came to the attention of a renowned orthopedic surgeon working at the hospital. The doctor took an interest in the case and when it became evident that Thomas and Anne couldn’t afford the operation’s cost, he agreed to do it provided his students could observe.

There were two more operations, many tense moments, but Tommy’s leg was saved.

In 1922, at the age of 15, Tommy Douglas, weighing 135 pounds and fighting out of the One Big Union Gym in Winnipeg became the lightweight boxing champion of Manitoba. A year later he successfully defended his title. He had his nose broken, lost a few teeth, and jammed a knuckle along the way. Tommy was a scrapper.

Raised in a Baptist home, imbued with the teachings of a caring Christ, Tommy enrolled in theological college and became a Baptist Minister who preached a social gospel that advocated justice and helping the poor.

At 25, Tommy was ministering to flock in Weyburn Saskatchewan. He didn’t have to travel far on his path of social activism before he came across the recently formed Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party. In 1935 he was elected to the House of Commons. When war broke out, he enlisted. He’d been to Nazi Germany before the war and was sickened by what he saw.

Soon after his return, Tommy made the move to provincial politics. Under his leadership the CCF captured 47 of 53 seats forming the first democratic socialist government in North America.

As Saskatchewan premier, Tommy led the CCF to five consecutive majorities, brought in Canada’s first publicly-owned auto insurance corporation, created numerous crown corporations, enacted the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights (which preceded the UN BIll of Rights by a year) and created legislation that enabled the unionization of public employees. 

“I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first class surgeon to his bedside,” Tommy said. With that in mind he stepped into the ring with the medical establishment of North America and won. If he hadn’t we wouldn’t have universal health care today.

I met Tommy when I was a kid working for his re-election in Burnaby. He was a self effacing, keenly intelligent, gentle man bent on doing the right thing for people. His demeanour reminded me of my dad’s.

Recently, Steve Perih and I made a trip to Prince George to visit our fishing buddy, Mike Whelpley. Mike was in the check out line, as he puts it. His kidneys were barely functioning and he’d caught C-Difficile. He’d spent a month in Mills, had been in Prince George General for a couple of weeks when we visited him, and he was scheduled for a trip to Saint Paul’s to be examined by a team of cardiologists.

I hope that wasn’t the last time we’ll see Mike, I told Steve as we left the hospital.

Me too, said Steve, as he limped across the parking lot. Steve’s right hip was functioning about as well as Mike’s right kidney – he was slated for surgery in a month’s time.

Since then Mike has recovered and Steve has a new hip and is looking forward to some quality time on the river. Things might not have turned out so well if a scrappy Tommy Douglas hadn’t been in their corner.